Seven ways to write great characters

Related image

Writing great characters is integral to writing great fiction. Good characters arouse our passions. Readers identify with characters and make stories memorable. This article provides seven tips for writing characters that your fans will love or at least find somewhat agreeable.

Make your characters likable

Will Smith and Tom Hanks have made their careers by playing likable characters. Some of these characters are hyperintelligent and some profoundly dumb. Some inspire laughter and others tears. But the characters they play are always easy to like. They have a quality about them that makes you feel like, given the chance, you’d get along with them.
So, why does this matter? It matters because people like rooting for a likable person. People want the good guy to get the girl. They want the honorable person to rise to the top. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always deal out its cards fairly. Bad guys win all the time. As a result, people want to escape into a fiction governed by poetic justice, where the bad guys run up against the shit they deserve and the good guys get to sit back and have a cold one.

Make your characters unlikable

In the Age of Trump, you don’t have to stray far from the daily headline to know why this tip works. The news media has raked in cash hand over fist by exploiting an insatiable appetite for reading about an unlikable president. His Gallup approval rating average hangs right around 39%. But why? There’s such a thing as schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Coupled with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, that great tragedy must involve the fall of a great man, Trump meets all of the requirements to lock in the attention of the masses. The guy’s billionaire status puts him in that class of rare, “great” men. His rise to the leadership of the United States, love of lying, and courting of chaos makes him the perfect unlikable character.
Though you may decide that the path for you is to write a Trump biography–probably not a bad idea in an age where anything reeking with his brand gets instant press–the key is to consider that people love to hate things. We watch documentaries about serial killers, cult leaders, and fascist dictators. The greatest tyrants in history capture our attention. Bank robbers, con artists, and psychopaths achieve something of a celebrity status. Use this love of all things bad to your advantage and write an unlikable character in your story.

Base characters on the embodiment of an ideal

One strategy for making a great character is to build them up from the embodiment of an ideal. Many of our highest ideals exist in the abstract, so to better understand them, writers create a character that presents those ideals in body and personality. As an example, think of Superman. Here’s a guy that is totally okay grinding out the 9-5 even though he is smarterstronger, and better looking than everyone else. What’s more, after hours the guy goes around fighting crime.
So, what does this mean, exactly? Well, Superman represents a governmental ideal of conformity. He is the model citizen, especially since he wouldn’t have to conform if he didn’t feel like it. Superman could bust through a bank safe and never work another day in his life if he so chose. But he doesn’t bust into banks. Nope, he actually dumbs himself down so he can blend in with the everyman, writing copy for the daily and humbly getting yelled at by micromanagers. He’s like a willful version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.
If you want to write a character that embodies an ideal, then you will first think of a cultural ideal and then craft a character to represent it.
A caveat here is that crafting characters based on ideals has been done a lot, and not just in the last century. For the first couple hundred years of novel writing, almost all characters personified something or other. And British literature from the Middle Ages or earlier skewed toward morality writing, which, of course, is stocked with personified characters. Early American literature is similarly stocked with personifications. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use this technique. It just means that you should be aware of dangerously dull morality plays like Everymanso that you write something original and entertaining.

Develop your characters

A character should not be the same at the end of a story as at the beginning. A static character is a boring character. Characters should grow, make discoveries, and have wild experiences that alter them. Why? Because rare is it to find a real person that doesn’t change as a result of their life experiences.
Now, of course, given the right situation, it could be interesting to write a character that maintains a stone-consistent identity. Think of Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. The Lost TV series also did this pretty well with a couple of characters that were immortal or near immortal. Honestly, I’m still unclear about the plot of Lost, but I’m fairly sure that there were near immortal characters sustained by the electromagnetic properties of the island, right? Or was the island some kind of weird Catholic afterlife, a weird purgatory (not that there’s an unweird purgatory). Hmm. Let’s just move on.

Give your characters intrigue

Giving characters intrigue is similar to developing them. This means that you should not reveal everything about them from the beginning of the story. A slow, but steady reveal piques readers’ interest. They get to guess what is really going on in the skulls of characters.
Sometimes a flashback can provide just the right details to give the audience a needed understanding of a character. Alternately, having a character meet someone from their past can provide a dramatic reveal.
Charlotte Bronte was a master of the slow reveal. In Jane Eyre, she uses Adele to bring up more intrigue about Rochester’s past, but then she doesn’t quite give us the full story about the girl’s history. Though we learn that Rochester is helping a “friend” by taking little Adele in his charge, we’re left to wonder if Rochester is motivated by compassion or if Adele is his own flesh and blood. Has Rochester been entertaining himself with French dancing girls? I’m willing to bet the answer is yes.
A slow reveal should go slow. When new information is revealed, it should still mask more information yet to surface.

Make your characters human

This might seem a little too obvious, but characters in the very best fiction are easy to identify with because they experience what humans experience. They have emotional reactions that we all experience: elation and depression, love and anger, interest and boredom. Draw upon the full spectrum of human experience and emotion and your characters will appear like real people.

Use believable dialogue

Another important element for making your characters human is to give them believable dialogue. Watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room sometime to get a feel for unbelievable dialogue. Can you say, “Oh. Hi, Mark!”

The flip side of making characters human is that sometimes it is effective to stylize the human experience. David Lynch’s 
Twin Peaks was effective in heightening the passion of characters, making them larger than life. There’s a fine line between going over the top and coming out with something worthy of Wiseau or of Lynch.
Okay, now go write characters your readers will love! Post about other tips that work for you below.