Character Development is Hard and People Are Really Weird
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Your characters are your book’s biggest investment.
Outline, plot, plan, make sure the story is epic, but remember this: If a character’s amazing, I’ll read about them doing anything. The could be folding their laundry, I don’t care, I want to be there with them.
But give me a bad character, and I don’t care if it’s the most epic journey of all time—I won’t be interested.
An example of this is Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (one of my favourite books of all time). That book was beautiful, engaging, and compelling—every time I read it, I simply cannot put it down.
But what’s it about, really? It’s about this kid who pokes about New York City for a couple days, essentially doing nothing. He just kind of bounces around, getting into random trouble and rambling about his life and thoughts.
Alternately, boring, irritating, or simply unenjoyable characters make the reading experience painful, and no matter how wonderful the rest of the book is, if I don’t respect the main character, if I don’t enjoy reading about them, then I’m not going to have any fun.
This isn’t to say that characters must be perfect—far from it. Flawed, broken, deeply imperfect characters are the best. Holden up there is a great example. See also: Lyra (His Dark Materials), Sherlock Holmes, and The Great Gatsby himself. But just because they’re messed up, that doesn’t mean we don’t like them. They’re fun. They’re flawed. They’re real. They’re a little off, but that’s part of their charm.
So how do we create these compelling characters? Characters that people actually want to read about?
Well, first of all, don’t make them characters.
You’re not a character. I’m not a character. I don’t know who you are or what you’re like, but I know that you are a whole, real, living human being with thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, a past, a present, and a future. You have friends, people you can’t stand, weird quirks, habits, interests, hobbies, goals, and obligations.
And so do the best book characters. They aren’t “the smart one” or “the leader” or “the villain”—they’re people, and they all think they’re right in their own way.
So make them people. Spend time with them. Flesh them out. You already have some idea of how you want them to be, so write a character profile to get yourself started. Once you’ve got that, play around with it. Get more detailed. Go beyond Name/Age/Appearance and get into fears, hopes, weaknesses, strengths, best friends, worst enemies, darkest memory, favourite food, worst trait, preferred clothing style…the list can go on and on, and it doesn’t matter if it will ever make it into the story; you should know these people the same way you know your best friend. You should know them the way you know yourself. You should know them better.
A fantastic exercise is to write some short stories starring your characters. Not even necessarily a story; just throw them into various scenes and play with it. Have fun—let the characters tell you what you want (they really do just kind of do whatever they want, it’s kind of scary). So listen to them, hang out with them. Let them be weird, or random. Let them ramble about a subject you had no intention of writing about, or get really worked up over something small. If you get stuck, try out some character development exercises and writing practices. Once you get going, the momentum will carry you along, and writing will become easy.
Using examples from real life can be a great jumping-off point for getting a character rolling. What are some mannerisms, characteristics, or idiosyncrasies of you, your parents, friends, teachers, or anyone else you’ve met over the years? Marie Schrader in Breaking Bad has everything (everything) in purple. Augustus Waters from The Fault in Our Stars has theories about the most random concepts. It’s fun. It’s real. And it’s most likely garnered from real-life people who the writers encountered and found compelling. (Side note: This is an excellent excuse to do more people watching.)
Also: have your characters talk to each other. One of the most profound writing experiences I ever had was during scene I couldn’t stand. It was pivotal, and I was struggling like crazy. I couldn’t get the flow right, and the conversation between my main character and one of her mentors was just becoming agonizing.
And then her mentor blurted out a question. I swear, it surprised me even more than it surprised my main character. When she answered, I was doubly floored. That moment changed the entire scope of the story, added a whole new layer to my main character, and deepened everything I was writing.
Apart from sounding vaguely schizophrenic, that experience reminded me of the importance of letting the characters do what they have to do, say what they have to say, and be who they have to be. You are less a creator and more a parent—much like a parent with a child, you must remember that they are not you and they will do their own things.
So, in short, if you want to create compelling characters, it’s about the same as creating deep relationships in real life: Spend time with them. Get to know them well, make them part of your life. Think about how they’d react to various situations…and before you know it, you won’t have a protagonist, his comic-relief best friend, and their nemesis—you’ll have genuine people, and you’ll love every one of them.
And nothing makes a story leap off the page like an author writing with love about characters they cherish. That will give you book power.
Oh, and one final note: Don’t be afraid to let your characters be weird. People are weird. Even the normal ones (or perhaps especially the normal ones…). We’re all a little nutty, so make sure your characters are, too!