Your story can have the coolest world-building and biggest ideas ever, but unless your readers love the characters you create, your writing will fall flat. We are drawn to stories because of the characters: characters we want to be, characters we fall in love with, characters we hate...but have so much fun hating!
How do you find these captivating personas? How do you design roles for them in the story that feel natural? How do you make them feel real?
If you’re writing in first person or third person limited, the most important role in your story is the POV character, as it’s their eyes, their opinions, their biases, and their experiences that will color the way the world is presented to the reader. Finding the right voice for your POV is essential. The story won’t work if this is broken.
Your POV character is obviously going to be the main character, and more often than not, they will also be your protagonist (a term which specifically refers to the character who pushes the story forward) and possibly also be your hero (the character who takes the heroic action in the story). Some stories, however, divvy up these roles to different characters. For example, in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Scout is the main character, but her father Atticus can be viewed as the protagonist and chief hero.
In many heist novels or stories with a large ensemble of characters, it becomes harder to identify just which ones are your main character, protagonist, and hero. Does it even matter? Not always, but often times when you’re struggling to identify why a story isn’t working, the answer is that you haven’t figured out who is pushing the story forward.
Unless you’re writing about a lone character lost in the woods for the whole of your manuscript, your story is probably going to have more than one or two characters. Remember that the bigger your cast, the more pages you’ll need to do them justice. Be cautious of adding too many and be ready to combine a few if the word count demands it. This is especially true in short fiction.
And don’t forget about fleshing out the side characters, too. The love interest, the sidekick, the villain, etc. should all be fully-fledged characters with lives of their own.
As long as children have gathered around the fire to listen to their elders tell stories, there have been character archetypes: the every person, the chosen one, the warrior, the anti-hero, the orphan, the mentor, the joker, the ruler, the rebel, the lover, the dumb muscle, the supervillain, the village idiot, and many more. You can’t avoid archetypes. Embrace them, while remembering to find new and exciting ways of combining them and to make each character distinct. What you don’t want is to blindly copy character tropes that you see in other books and movies and end up creating stereotypes.
Making characters feel real and memorable means fleshing them out, giving them strengths and weaknesses, habits and quirks, while not going overboard by making every character eccentric.
Think about what they’ll need to accomplish in the story and what characteristics will help and hinder their pursuit of that goal. You usually want to show both. You want characters who are hypercompetent in some areas, but weak in others. Think Sherlock Holmes, a genius detective who struggles with the basics of human interaction. That’s a set-up ripe for conflict and change.
Let’s look at character qualities to consider, and remember that obviously none of your characters will need all of these! You can consider the character’s age, place of birth, height/weight, physical description, distinguishing traits, clothes, known languages, talents/skills, family, friends, sexual orientation, upbringing, passions, pet peeves, fears, ambitions, sense of humor, life philosophy, mannerisms/body language, greatest flaw, and greatest strength. How do they curse? What metaphors do they use? What common phrases do they say? How do they react when things go right? How do they react when things go wrong?
Make sure to check out the article “Exercises: Get to know your characters” for more on this topic.
Action, Arc, and Likability
It’s hard to root for a character—especially a main character—who doesn’t have a powerful desire. We love characters who want something, who push themselves, who are active. A lot of new authors, perhaps taking their own lives as inspiration, make their main characters start out just sort of sitting around waiting for something to happen. This...is..boring. It doesn’t mean your character has to be desperate for things to change. Indeed, sometimes it’s the opposite. At the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, Bilbo Baggins wants nothing to do with the dwarves’ adventures, but he isn’t passive. Rather, he is actively pursuing a life of leisure. Gandalf’s plans are getting in the way of what he desires, and this creates tension.
Give each character a life before the story begins. Establish their status quo, their personality, their world. And once the action starts, don’t just leave them to be an observer on the sidelines. Prepare to make them an active part of the conflict, to make them suffer, and to make them change.
And don’t forget to make the reader like them, especially if they’re not the sort of person we typically think of as lovable. You can show their intelligence. Show their passion. Show another character liking them. That’s a big one. In the TV show “House”, the audience is introduced to a total jerk doctor as the main character, but they also meet his kind-hearted best friend. If Dr. House has a close friend like that, surely there must be something good about him. Oh, and when in doubt, show your character helping out a puppy! It’s impossible for readers to hate a character who saves puppies. That’s psychology 101.
So, you can picture your characters in your head. You know the role they play in the story. But what do you call them? Most authors come up with names early on and often change them later. There are endless resources out there to come up with names, from baby name books to random name generators. There aren’t hard and fast rules for naming characters, but there are guidelines that can help.
Say the name out loud? If it’s difficult to pronounce, it also might be difficult to remember. This is especially true of fantastical names an author makes up for their fantasy or science fiction story.
Too many A’s
Unless your book has a massive cast, it can be helpful to avoid having multiple character names start with the same letter. And watch out for using too many A’s and B’s and C’s. Nothing makes me roll my eyes harder than when I see a story where the author obviously started looking through “The Big Book of Baby Names” and finished their search on about page 10.
If you’re writing historical fiction or characters who come from specific real-world cultures, do your research. Make sure the names are era-appropriate, presented correctly, and that their meanings don’t clash with the themes of your story.
How silly is too silly?
If you’re writing an action satire, then sure, name your protagonist “Bucky Thunderchest”. But that name would just be a distraction in pretty much any other genre. I recommend asking friends or alpha readers how they feel about the names of your characters. More than once, I’ve come up with a name I thought was awesome only to discover that I’m literally the only human to feel that way.
Giving your character nicknames that certain other characters call them can be a good tool in smoothing out confusion as to who is talking. It can also act as a shorthand to establish relationships. For example, we learn something about the other characters when we hear them say “Dr. House” as opposed to “House” or “Greg”.