Figuring out characters is tough for writers. You need a plot to tell a story, but without sympathetic characters the whole thing falls apart.
You need to consider not just your protagonist and antagonist, but also every side-character.
What purpose do they fulfill?
How do they advance the story?
Why are they even in the story?
When a writer tries to create a story with a rich tapestry of characters, they may commit to a lot of time and effort agonizing over details.
Today, I’m going to share some secrets to help you orient toward just what your readers need.
1. Figure Out Their Purpose
You need to identify what a character’s purpose in the story is.
They can have multiple roles, but you need at least one.
When you look for a character’s purpose, ask: “Is this the best character for the job?”When you look for a character's purpose, ask: "Is this the best character for the job?" If you can merge characters, you make things easier on yourself and your readers. Click To Tweet
If you can merge characters, you make things easier on yourself and your readers.
This check keeps you from spending a lot of time and effort on a character that doesn’t play a role in the final story.
2. Know Their Persona
You need to know how the character looks to the world.
How do people see them?
How do they view themselves?
What image does the character convey?
Think about how the character wants to be seen. Are they successful? Do they even know how they come across?
This determines how they interact with everyone else in the story.
3. Define Their Motive
What’s in it for them?
You need to be able to explain why characters act.
How often do you hear the following? “Because we’re all stuck in this mess.”
That’s not a motive. It can explain why a character is there. But it doesn’t say what they want to achieve at the end of the day.
You should know where each character wants to end up in their own perfect world.
Even if they don’t know this themselves, they still want something.
4. Give Them Power
Your characters need strength.
Not always a lot of strength, mind you. There’s a balance there. Your protagonist needs to grow and develop or else the story feels “cheap” to readers.
But they also need to be worth looking at. What makes them succeed?
Make sure this comes across to your readers.
5. Give Them Flaws
The counterpart to strength is weakness.
All characters should be imperfect. This keeps them from feeling shallow.
Think about when you gave your character a motive.
They have a goal. What’s in the way of that? Why can’t they get it now?
It helps if you spread the flaws out. Maybe they can’t figure out a proper course of action. That’s a problem that can threaten them even at the edge of success and reflects a lack of knowledge.
But that’s not the only problem they could face. Maybe they’re not a skilled enough swordsman to challenge the evil king’s champion. Here, they’re failing because they don’t have experience with a practical skill.
Maybe they’re afraid of taking any risks. When you focus on something like this, you provide a character flaw that needs to be overcome.
Rich and nuanced flaws are often a source of flavor for a character. You can give one overwhelming flaw, or use a balance, but the important thing is that they’re keeping characters from having what they want right now.
6. Give Them a History
When you define a character, think about their past.
I don’t do long backstories, but I think about defining events. Whenever I need a character to feel like they fit, I use the following list to determine some details.
If you have a minor character, you can probably get by with two or three, but major characters should have a bunch of these come together.
- Significant other
- Childhood dream
- Childhood trauma
- Wealth bracket
- Childhood friend
- Social group
- Favorite pastime
- Most common vice
- Favorite virtue
- Criminal record
- Number of friends
Once you have these you can play off them with many simple interactions.
For instance, a character with lots of friends has constant social engagements. As side characters, they’re flaky. As major characters, they’re overwhelmed or incredibly suave.
Many of these tie into persona, but they’re more in line with biographical details.