Nothing compares to the allure of a new book and the promise made by a strong synopsis - a story that can't be put down - a real page turner. Just inside the front cover, the testimonials sing accolades about the twists and turns and clever plot. Unfortunately, fifty pages in, and it's become a slog. The problem... the characters suck!
How is it that we latch onto some characters and not others? What magical force turned Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter, Scarlett O'hara and Tyler Durden into such memorable characters; meanwhile that one character in the book you're currently reading might as well not even have a name?
Wouldn't it be nice if every character came to you in a flash of creative inspiration that spilled out onto the page with relative ease? Sure it would. And sometimes it does. More often than not, though, creating a compelling character is hard work, and yet, is the key element necessary to turn a chore of a read into a memorable masterpiece.
Here are six characteristics to help make your characters worthy of the pages they live on.
1. Make the Ordinary Extraordinary:
It can be tempting to make your character extraordinary in an ordinary world. Surely there's someone out there who might relate to an eight-foot tall wall of solid muscle with the IQ of Isaac Newton, the musical prowess of Mozart, the sex drive of Ron Jeremy, and the fighting skills of Bruce Lee... but that person isn't reading your book. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is a great example of ordinary beginnings. She provides for her struggling family and the last thing she wants or needs is for anything extraordinary to happen to her.
2. The Hidden Talent:
Whether your character has the ability to shoot the wings of a gnat with an arrow or has an aptitude for magical spells, everyone has something they've devoted themselves to being good at. Maybe some more than others, but the fact remains your character must be good... at something. It'll give your other characters a reason to rely on them at their greatest moment of need.
3. The Dirty Secret:
Alright, it doesn't necessarily need to be a dirty secret, but your character definitely needs to have a few cards they hold close to their chest. This secret can be alcoholism or drug addiction - it can be that they're a math prodigy or an atheist. Whatever their secret, it would change their social status dramatically if others were to find out. Your character's secret should inform their decisions and cause internal conflict (as well as external conflict) when it comes to achieving their ultimate goal.
4. The Tragic Loss/Heroic Deed:
One of the fastest ways to create empathy for your character is for them to deal with the loss of a loved one or for them to perform a heroic deed. Or mix it up by having your character cause a tragic loss or perform an evil deed. Contradictions can really help put a third-dimension in a flat character. Have your hero do something horrible. Have your villain do something heroic. Establish your character's values and have them act against them. This complexity will have your readers turning the page to find out what they will do next.
5. A Detailed Backstory:
Often times characters are flat because they're written to move the story forward or to fill a specific need or plot point, and that's it. It's easy to forget to flesh out characters with a touch of history. You don't have to shove a chapter full of flashbacks down your readers' throats - a character's history can be sprinkled into your writing subtly and over the course of your masterpiece.
Instead of your character putting on his favorite watch, have him put on the watch his grandfather gave him on his twenty-third birthday. Instead of your character nervously rubbing her hands, have her rubbing the indentation where she once wore her wedding band. There might never be a scene with your character's grandfather or ex-husband, but those little details can add years of history to characters who might otherwise have very little to relate to.
6. Names matter:
Many writers struggle with naming their characters. The impulse is to give our unique characters unique names. A unique name or creative spelling might work for your character (think Hermione or Katniss). More likely though, your favorite characters are going to have names that are a little more plain. Whether it's Luke, Tony, Diana, Claire, Tyler, Lucy or Harry; simple names have a lot of power. It may be that they're easier to relate to or easier to digest - either way, common names work. Jason Borne might never have made it past The Borne Identity if he'd been Jacobaroni Borne... yet beginning novelists everywhere still insist on getting over creative with their character's names.
Consider how many times your reader will have to read your character's name. If it's a name they get stuck on, whether it's oddly spelled or difficult to pronounce, you might create an unnecessary roadblock for your audience. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule, but this is one of those areas where it's advisable not to overthink it. Surnames are an easy way to add flavor without giving your character a name that's too hard to swallow. Luke Skywalker, Diana Prince, Harry Potter, Claire Redfield. These names are simplistic, yet memorable. Be kind to your readers and force them to remember your characters by how well they're written.
Obviously, this is not a definitive list. Striking gold with the perfect character can take a lot of trial and error. Draw inspiration from the people around you and the characters you know and love. And if there are any other characteristics you feel are necessary for writing a compelling character, please share your ideas in the comments.