November 2, 2020

3 Elements Writers Need to Create Great Characters

By Paul Goat Allen

Well-developed and complex characters are integral to creating a novel that resonates with readers and critics alike. Even with other noteworthy narrative attributes like readability, immersion, plot intricacy, and thematic profundity, a storyline is inevitably going to fail without interesting and identifiable characters.

Ask yourself this: what are some of your all-time favorite fictional characters? Off the top of my head, some of mine are Michael Moorcock’s albino sorcerer Elric of Melniboné, R. A. Salvatore’s dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, Stacia Kane’s hardcore junkie Chess Putnam, Richard Kadrey’s foul-mouthed nephilim Sandman Slim, and Sophie Littlefield’s apocalyptic badass Cassandra “Cass” Dollar, to name just a few…

So, looking at this diverse list, it becomes evident that all of these iconic characters have three elements in common.

1. Believability. Taken in context with the genre category and the story setting, characters need to have an authenticity about them. Their life stories have to be plausible. A few years back, I reviewed a zombie fiction thriller where a sheltered suburban character—a nerdy elementary school kid—uncovered an automatic weapon and not only immediately knew how to use the assault rifle but was downing zombies right between the eyes like an elite sniper. It was totally unbelievable and took me out of the story completely. Believability seems like such a simple thing to achieve, but I run across this narrative pitfall frequently.

Narrative clarity plays a big role here, interestingly enough. The more accurately a character is described—both internally and externally—the more chances a writer has to make this character believable. A great example here is Whoa, Whoa, Whoa—an erotic memoir by the pseudonymous E.P. Gold. Regardless of whether certain sequences were pure fiction or not, Gold’s unabashedly frank narrative about a repressed British housewife and mother rings true. There’s a genuineness and honesty there that makes the character feel undeniably “real.”

2. Depth. Again, this is another narrative flaw that is all too common—the lack of character depth. I see this a lot in epic fantasy and grand-scale science fiction. The characters are just cardboard pieces that the author maneuvers around an oversized game board. I recently reviewed a heavily promoted science fiction novel that had so much going for it—a fantastic premise, solid writing, breakneck pacing, plenty of action, etc.—except that the main character was completely two-dimensional. Without that character depth, the story became emotionally flat because of the forgettable protagonist. So, how can you give your characters depth? There are many ways to achieve this, but here are a few simple aspects to consider:

  • 2a. Motivation. What are your character’s hopes and/or fears? What motivates or inspires your protagonist? Why do they do what they do? Glimpses into a character’s backstory can do wonders here. When your readers understand your main characters’ motivations—be it finding love, seeking vengeance, solving a mystery, or finding one’s place in the world—those readers will feel like they have a deeper understanding of your characters.
  • 2b. Flaws. This is a big one. Ever read a novel featuring a character with no real flaws? Boring… Also, referencing the first element, not very believable either. The main character in Stacia Kane’s cult classic urban fantasy saga, Downside, for example, is deeply flawed—but those flaws make her real. Chess Putnam works for the Church of Real Truth as a Debunker, someone who banishes offending spirits from residences. But she’s also a hardcore junkie, whose self-hate and paralyzing fear of having to deal with a nightmarish childhood—and more than a few bad decisions—have kept her anesthetized by drugs for years.“That bitter numbness—so soothing—in her nose and sinuses, the back of her throat… like parts of her didn’t exist anymore. Especially when her heart jumped and happiness blossomed in her chest, in her mind. Definitely like parts of her didn’t exist anymore. All the bad parts.”

    Chess is an unforgettable protagonist—so complex and imperfect and full of paradoxes—and it’s Kane’s deep and insightful exploration of her flaws that makes her such a powerfully moving character.

    In The Crocodile Makes No Sound, the second installment of an excellent historical mystery saga by N.L. Holmes featuring lifelong diplomat Lord Hani, Holmes executes a neat narrative trick by making her protagonist’s virtues into his biggest flaws. Hani’s love—and loyalty—to his extended family (as well as his obsessively inquisitive nature) put his entire family’s lives in jeopardy.

  • 2c. Idiosyncrasies. Giving your characters quirks and eccentricities is an easy way to not only create depth and make them more memorable but also, in some cases, make them more endearing as well. In Jacquelyn Middleton’s flirty and fun contemporary romance Say Hello, Kiss Goodbye, she makes her leading man—a wealthy British real estate developer—a hardcore Star Wars fan who has a Darth Vader rubber ducky and a life-sized Storm Trooper in his house. His love of pop culture fandom—from Dr. Who to Dr. Seuss—deepens his character and also makes him an undeniably lovable character.

3. Identifiability. This is perhaps the most important element of all. All of the characters I listed earlier—Elric, Drizzt, Chess, etc.—resonated so powerfully with me because I saw something in them that I could relate to. Elric was the proverbial outsider, persecuted for his differences. Drizzt was a deeply contemplative Seeker, following his own path in search of himself and his ultimate purpose. Chess was struggling to process childhood trauma so that she could move on with her life.

Additionally, a big part of identifiability is the character’s ability to change, to evolve, to Become the person they were meant to be. Here’s a quick but revealing test. Think about your character at the beginning of your novel. Now envision them at novel’s end. How much have they changed? If you discover that that haven’t changed at all or very little, that’s a good indication that you need to work more on that character’s development and individual story arc.

By utilizing the aforementioned measures—authenticity, motivation and backstory, flaws, and eccentricities—you’ll begin to see how and why your character is becoming more identifiable to your readers. Certain issues are almost universal—discovering one’s purpose and/or passion in life, struggling to come to grips with the loss of a loved one, dealing with a personal issue like a speech disorder or anorexia or addiction, trying and failing to fit in, etc.

When your reader can identify with one or more of your fictional creations—and live vicariously through them—you know you’ve succeeded in creating a well-developed and memorable character!

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.

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