Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that characters are kind of big deals when it comes to fiction writing. They’re the heart of the story and the main reason our readers gift us with hours of their lives. Let’s face it: without characters, the reading experience wouldn’t really be electrifying. Like, at all. May as well hand them a book on mathematical physics, I say.
I mean, sure, some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but almost every great story is about the people. Even a fantastic plot-driven book would feel empty without well-developed characters. Why? Because there’s nothing like connecting with a story on an emotional level. And having rich, layered characters in your book is the way you achieve that. How? By making them realistic. I know, I know. This goes without saying . . . but it’s best to add a reminder. Just in case.
Readers need to care about your characters. And that won’t happen if your character is not believable. So how do we make our characters realistic? Well, in simple terms: humanize them. Give them flaws, hopes, fears, skills, and weaknesses that real people have.
Characters take us inside our made-up world. They create empathy, fear, disgust, confusion, amusement, make us fall in love, and in the end, they either make us happy or they break our hearts. Some characters stay with us, while the rest get lost in a pit of oblivion. So don’t be that guy. The one who writes “pit of oblivion” characters. Instead, see if this checklist has any tips that resonate with you, turn you off, or inspire your next superstar of a character.
Your Character’s Checklist in Six Parts:
As the author, you should know your character’s name, age/DOB, and sex (not “yes” or “no,” but “male” or “female” :P )
Make sure the name fits your character’s profile. For example, Satan’s name wouldn’t be Mickey since it wouldn’t even intimidate a puppy.
Know your character’s occupation, where he lives, what he drives, and his position amongst his peers, family, etc.
2- PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION
Character’s appearance.Yes, this is obvious and yet . . . here we are. You should know things like hairstyle, eye color, height, and weight. But you should also make note of anything that is unique, such as:
° Scars, missing toes, tattoos of my face on their arms, etc.
° Add imperfections! It can be part her charm to have crooked teeth, a wide forehead, or a big nose.
° What’s her standout feature? A mole, heart-shaped face, glasses, braces, or maybe she always wears a ponytail.
Fashion style. Make notes of his preference and stay consistent. Does he have a unique accessory, like an antique watch? Maybe he never leaves home without it. Or he maybe he refuses to wear suits. Ever.
Dialogue. Everyone has a unique style of speaking. Your character’s manner of speech would be influenced by his age and cultural background. Use that to your advantage.
Maybe he has an accent or makes hand gestures when he gets nervous.
Does he stutter, pause a lot, or speak fast?
Does he have a catchphrase? Awesome! Use it.
Please use all of the above sparingly. Overdoing it might just annoy your reader.
Quirks and mannerisms.Like real people, your characters should have recognizable quirks and behaviors. Such as:
Lip biting, running hands through their hair, or nail chewing.
Loves to be sarcastic, corrects vocabulary, turns everything into sexual innuendo, etc.
Beyond that, maybe she’s always on a diet (like me). Or doesn’t like water, is a hugger, must always be on time, or can only write with blue-inked pens. Hey, don’t judge. We all have our “thing.”
Flaws, weaknesses, and fears.Part of what makes readers relate to a character is when they can see them as real people. And real people have flaws, weaknesses, and fears. What are your character’s most negative personality traits? Maybe he’s an immature, arrogant jerk who needs to grow up. Or she’s a doormat who’s always being taken advantage of. Maybe they’re both afraid to take risks.Whatever it is, make sure your characters face it in the story. Even if they fail, it adds to their story arc.
Loves, dislikes, hobbies, and life motto.Whether these make it into your story or not, it will help you portray your character in a consistent way. The more you know, the richer your character will come across.
Skills and traits. No one is great at everything, but we all have a blend of qualities that help us get through life. Give your character one or two skills that stand out and let them shine when it matters the most. These can be used to save the day or to add layers to your character.
Does she have special abilities, military training, photographic memory, or can kick ass in heels?
Birthday.Use DOB to match personality to astrological signs.
Backstory. Each character has a life before the story begins. What was it?
What life experiences have shaped him to be who he is today?
What’s his day-to-day life look like before the story takes off?
Secrets.A great way to add an extra layer to your character is by giving her a big secret. Secrets can influence a character’s behavior immensely, so go for it if it fits the story.
Goals. Everyone has a list of goals. They can range from day-to-day achievements to a determined goal of overcoming the obstacles in your book. Personally, I feel that a character’s goals can drive the whole story.
Give your character a combination of small and big goals.
What is it he desperately wants?
What motivates him?
Make his goals relate to both the central plot and the subplots of the story.
Give several characters contradicting goals to deepen the story and to add tension.
Greatest fear.Figure out where your character’s most terrifying fear comes from. It can tie into your character’s past, or it could originate from an event that happens at the beginning of your story. It may be the biggest obstacle in the achievement of your character’s goal.
Some examples are fear of failure, death, letting someone down, loss of control, betrayal, helplessness to protect loved ones, loneliness, dishonor, shame, being a “nobody.”
Obstacles.Your character’s path should be filled with obstacles, big and small. But there should be a main obstacle preventing your character from achieving his goal.
Though this hindrance can certainly be the villain, keep in mind that family and friends can also play a role in holding him back. Especially if he’s impulsive, or if what must be done is very dangerous.
It can also be a personal flaw, lack of information, or wrong timing.
Personally, I’d suggest going for a combination of obstacles. Really screw with your character (and don’t forget to do an evil laugh).
Friends and Family. The people who’ve shaped your character’s personality and influenced her life are the closest people to her. Who are they? Make notes of her relationship with each of her family members and friends.
What new friends will she make during this story?
Who’s her sidekick or best friend? How does this person affect your character’s behavior and actions?
Who’s her love interest?
Antagonist.This is someone who opposes our main character and interferes with her reaching her goal. Who is it, how do they know each other, and what does this person want?
Character Relationships.Real people interact with others differently, depending on their individual relationships. Create a rich character by showing his different dynamics through his interaction with other characters.
Add tension by creating conflicting interest between him and his friends. It’s more fun than having them agree on everything.
Add interest by creating similarities between opposing characters. How shocking is it to know you and your nemesis have similar interests? Think how Harry Potter felt when he found out how alike he was to Voldemort.
On the other end, what differentiates them? Yes, their opposing goals for the story is the main point, but don’t stop there. Also explore their personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses.
People are multifaceted so make sure you mix it up. Just because a character is a nemesis, doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Just like our main character has her flaws, our villain might have redeeming qualities. He may be acting out of vengeance/hurt. He may be fighting to save the environment or may be trying to destroy world hunger.
For you to understand your character best, even if you don’t share this with the reader, make a note of your character’s:
Defining life events.
Happiest and saddest memory.
So there you have it, and if you found it helpful, here’s a free Character Worksheet based on the checklist above.
And hey, that’s not to say you have to do any of this. We all have our methods. What’s yours? Do you start with a character outline or do you just start writing and let them develop organically?
Have any tips to add? Share them in the comments below! Thanks ;)
By S. Katherine Anthony
S.K. Anthony (Shanny) is a writer, a reader, and make-stuff-up-er who lives in New York. She is an award-winning author and a bestseller on Amazon. When she isn’t busy with her toddler twins, S.K. finds herself being transported into the world of imagination. Well, either that or running away from spiders . . . she is convinced they are out to get her!