Do you sometimes read a story, and even if the story isn’t all that great, you continue chugging along because the characters are interesting, quirky, or worth the trouble of continuing?
There’s a notion in writing that stories should be character-driven. This means that the decision of a character should be the driving force of the narrative, and not the other way around. The only caveat to this example is fantasy, where the type of story inadvertently means that the story is narrative-driven. A young farm boy wouldn’t try to usurp the king unless he found a dragon egg. And a young girl wouldn’t bring down a whole empire unless her sister’s life was at stake.
See the difference?
Either way, whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven, your characters and their choices will either make or break your story. This is why character development is important. Your character should be a different person by the end of your story, than they were at the beginning. The degree of change is up to you, the writer. But typically stories that have stagnant character development have simple storylines that won’t keep the reader engaged. Let’s look at some ways to make your characters feel real, while also avoiding typical clichés and other writing pitfalls.
Overthink your character
Firs thing’s first. As the writer and creator of the character in question, you can’t write well about any character in your story until they are fully fleshed out in your mind. What is their back story? How many siblings do they have? What is their favorite meal? Do they have any allergies? What is their greatest fear?
Overthinking your character isn’t in the sense of the physical: that they are tall and spry, or short and stocky. When I say overthink your character, I mean the essence of them as a person. Before writing a character well, they need to feel real to you. They need hopes and dreams, and fears and passions. They need to have a childhood that defined them for better or worse. They need motivation for what they are doing. A character should feel so real by the time that you start writing that it feels strange to write something that they wouldn’t agree to if they were standing next to you. When you write about your characters, it should feel more as if you are channeling their voice and personality instead of your own.
Which characters do I need to do this for?
You might not like this answer, but… you should do this exercise for as many characters as you can. Certainly your protagonist and antagonist. And then everyone who is a tier-two character, has a chapter from their point of view or appears relatively often.
You never know when any of these characters will suddenly become more important, or if their role will become more defined. If you already have their story mapped out, then that’s one less step for what you need to do later. It might even help prevent you from writing yourself into a corner.
And another thing: write each character as if they are the protagonist. Because in that secondary character’s mind, THEY are the hero of their story. How would that impact the main storyline? If there is a character who is egotistical, then it stands to believe that they would get in the way of the protagonist. Or even the antagonist, who certainly sees themselves as the center of their narrative! Writing each character as if they are the main character of the story is a wonderful opportunity to bring up knots of tension with other characters, deviate from plans and showcase some really great development, even from secondary characters!
Make the danger as great as the goal
In most stories, characters have one goal or another: get the girl, find the treasure, slay the beast. The goal needs to be clear in the character’s mind, and therefore, easy for the reader to understand. Now, what’s important is also that the forces that oppose the goal are as great as the goal itself. What will be interesting for the reader is to see how the character gets out of it – if they do.
Make your character be perfectly imperfect
Perfect characters are boring. Characters who are good at everything are boring. There’s no tension, no drama, the reader isn’t sitting on the edge of their seat wondering if the character will live or not. Your character (and the story as a whole) should be challenged, and they should also fail.
Frodo seems a steadfast hero in Lord of the Rings: selfless and somewhat immune to the effects of The One Ring. Until he isn’t so immune anymore and faces difficult decisions that contradict what his increasingly warped moral compass are asking him to do. The realization that he might fail in his mission keeps the reader invested in the outcome. Heroes can be steadfast, and strong, and brave, but they should also have flaws: impatience, a tendency for the dramatic, or have some sort of other Achille’s heel that gets them into trouble.
Give them an internal and external struggle
When I was working on Lily’s character in The Sapeiro Chronicles: A Forgotten Past, I wanted her journey to cross a whole emotional spectrum. Her external struggle seems simple enough: find out what her real identity is, and why she lost her memories. But her internal struggle is the flip side of that coin: does she really want to find out? Her dread and excitement at finding the truth behind her past and newfound power ebb and flow in the book, until she needs to decide what is more terrifying: the repercussions of ignoring her past, or the erosion of her identity.
Remember: characters are people, after all. And people are flawed. The more intricate and well-developed your characters are, the higher the chances of your story having a strong narrative flow.