One of the most common things I see as an editor is flat characters. Writing realistic characters that take the reader by the hand and lead them into the story isn’t easy. Indeed, I’ve struggled with it in my own writing. But creating characters that jump off the page can mean the difference between an engaged reader and an indifferent one. And indifference means the reader will likely put the book down—the kiss of death for an author.
So, just how do you create lifelike characters? Here are a few tips.
Give a character distinct mannerisms—a way of talking, unique hand gestures, or sayings. Author James Scott Bell calls these audio-visual markers. Visuals include appearance, style of dress, mannerisms, tics, gestures, etc. Audio includes how a character speaks, his or her distinct voice. Using distinct mannerisms helps bring the character to life, sets them apart from the other characters, and helps prevent your characters from being stereotypical.
Strengths and Weaknesses
All people have strengths and weaknesses. It’s what makes us human. As writers, we have a tendency to want to make our characters, especially our leads, perfect. But no one is perfect. Readers can’t identify with perfect characters because they’re not realistic. When readers can’t identify with your character, they won’t connect with your story. Readers identify with flaws, because they know they, themselves, are flawed.
Your protagonist’s goals drive the plot forward. These goals can be short term and long term. For example, in each scene, your character might have a minor goal—even something so simple as to meet someone at the park. But the long-term goal should relate to the story’s overall conflict.
In the Hunger Games, Katniss wants to protect her sister, so she volunteers to participate in the Games. Then her goal is to survive. In the Maze Runner, Thomas wants to remember who he is and escape the maze.
Know your character’s past, even if you don’t include it all in the story. Knowing their past will help drive the character’s actions. Justification for a character’s actions helps make them more believable. Just like living and breathing people, fictional characters do things for a reason. Maybe they were raised a certain way. Maybe specific experiences changed them. Knowing these things, even if you know you’ll never include them in the story, will help keep their actions consistent and believable. This is called the “Iceberg Technique.”
No stereotypes! The fastest way to make a character hum drum is to make them a stereotype. We want memorable, not everyday.
So, instead of a police officer who sits at the donut shop drinking coffee on his break, maybe he reads romance novels in his car. Instead of the construction worker who wears plaid flannel shirts and catcalls at women, maybe he recites poetry and wears bright colored shirts.
Author Jandy Nelson has created completely unique and memorable characters in I’ll Give You the Sun.
Here is one of the main characters, Noah:
Jude barfs bright blue fluorescent barf all over the table, but I’m the only one who notices. She can draw okay, but it’s different. For me, school only stopped being eight hours of daily stomach surgery when I realized everyone wanted me to sketch them more than they wanted to talk to me or bash my face in. No one ever wanted to bash Jude’s face in. She’s shiny and funny and normal—not a revolutionary—and talks to everybody. I talk to me.
In just this one paragraph, Jandy Nelson hits almost all of the points above. “Revolutionary” is a word that we will see used regularly—a distinct mannerism.
We can see one of Noah’s strengths in the line:
For me, school only stopped being eight hours of daily stomach surgery when I realized everyone wanted me to sketch them more than they wanted to talk to me or bash my face in.
And a weakness in:
She’s shiny and funny and normal—not a revolutionary—and talks to everybody. I talk to me.
And how much more unique can you get than to read a character saying:
Jude barfs bright blue fluorescent barf all over the table, but I’m the only one who notices.
That really makes you take notice!
And we even know something about his past:
…when I realized everyone wanted me to sketch them more than they wanted to talk to me or bash my face in. No one ever wanted to bash Jude’s face in.
Of course, not every paragraph will need so much characterization. It would get awfully repetitious fast if you included everything all the time. In writing, we want to strive for balancing all the elements of fiction, not overdoing them.
Consider creating a character sketch before you start writing. Then, write some anecdotes for your character in various situations. How does he react to stress? To success? Get to know them, try out their voice. So that when you sit down to write your novel, you’ll know that character inside and out, and it will show up on the page.