So, what is in a character? What, in fact, makes a character believable at all? What makes a reader feel like they are in your story-that they are part of your world? On the other hand, what makes a character boring or predictable? In this post, I will answer those questions.
Ahh, characters. My favorite part of writing. Why? Well, think back to the last time you read a novel. What made you continue reading? What urged you to turn the page? What made you feel, smell, see, taste, and hear what was going on in the story?
That’s right: the character(s). Well-developed characters are what make you turn that next page and continue reading; good characters make you feel like you are feeling, smelling, seeing, tasting, and hearing everything that goes on in the book you are reading.
But you’re not. You never are. So, what then makes a character so convincing, so real, that it feels as though you are there? Well, motivation, for one thing. And change, conflict, and appearance. Let’s break it down, step-by-step, starting with the basics.
Before you can start with the other things, such as motivation and conflict, you have to have some sort of idea about who your character is. Take a moment, if you haven’t already, to jot down answers to these questions about his/her basic appearance:
- What color eyes do they have?
- What color is their hair, and how long is it?
- Are they a boy or a girl?
- How old are they?
- How tall are they?
- Do they have freckles/moles?
- Any scars? If so, where did they get those scars?
- Any quirks? Such as drumming their fingers, blowing bangs out of their face, rubbing nose, or other? And why?
- Do they like the way they look, and why?
See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now you have a basic template for what your character looks like, a few quirks (those are always fun), and a few backstory pieces (like why they do or don’t like the way they look, where they got scars if they have any, and what is the reason for their quirk).
Now it’s time to move on to the next stage.
This is what drives your character into beginning on his or her journey through the story. Ready for more questions? It’s okay if you have to think on it for a while, but what started me on my story was that I had a great character whose story needed to be told. Usually, the character is what drives my stories. Once I know their motives, then I know why I just have to write about them.
- First off, what is changing the flow of your character’s everyday life?
- What change makes them start the story?
- Why is your character the best for this story?
- What makes them want to e.g. stop a bad guy, find mysterious object, travel across the world to find their parents?
Let’s break that last one down even further, into three parts.
- Values- what does your character value most? Freedom? Good grades? Their family? Money? Their own life? Doing the right thing? You need to have more than one of these, at least two, to create conflict, but more on that later.
- Ambition- What is that one thing your character wants the most? Do they want power? Respect? To avenge their loved one’s death? Love? Choose only one of these for your character’s ambition.
- Story goal- Now this is a little trickier, because sometimes you know your character’s story goal, but in the beginning your character does not. Usually, your character will learn what their ultimate goal is, and it’s a journey to find what it is. Keep in mind also, that every character has a story goal, and are usually in opposition to your character’s goal.
Remember every single character has these three things. Every character thinks they are the main character-that they have the front seat.
This is what makes someone turn the page. Without conflict, there is no story. For example:
Tommy was a hungry young boy with sandy blond hair. One day he wanted a sandwich. Tommy got up and went into the kitchen. He opened the fridge and got the ingredients he needed, then slapped everything together. He put it on a plate, got some chips, and went back to sit down and eat.
Not much of a story, is it? But we have everything we need for a story, right? Let’s see. Tommy was a hungry young boy with sandy blond hair. Okay – appearance, check.
One day he wanted a sandwich. Motivation/change – let’s see, does he have an ambition? Yes. He wanted to go and make a sandwich. And that was his value and story goal as well. Oops. He needs values, not just one.
Let’s skip ahead. He opened the fridge…slapped everything together…got some chips…went and ate. Well, there’s no conflict, and he only has one value. Let’s add another value and one or two conflicting feelings/characters.
Tommy was a hungry young boy with sandy blond hair. One day, he wanted to make a sandwich in the middle of the night. So Tommy got out of his bed and stood at his door, peering nervously out into the long, dark hallway. Swallowing down the lump that rose in his throat, he began creeping through the hallway, hoping that the darkest corners didn’t have monsters hiding there. Something moved in the shadows, and a low moan broke through the silence. Tommy stopped in his tracks, his heart beating fast. What was that? He squinted into the darkness. But it was only his cat, and it meowed a greeting as he continued past it. Finally, he reached the kitchen, and stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. More comfortable now that there was moonlight shining down into the room, he opened the fridge. Tommy almost jumped out of his skin when a voice broke the silence. “What do you think you’re doing?” Tommy knew his mother’s voice, and turned around, guilt filling him.
Can you see the difference? Now you have more than one value. He values his safety, because he thinks there are monsters and proceeds carefully, and he values his hunger. Valuing his safety makes him think twice about going and making a sandwich to appease his value of satisfying his hunger. Two values equal conflict.
Also, I could have gone a lot longer when Tommy’s mother came into the picture. And now that he has a fear of the dark, we get to feel, see, and hear what he does, making the reading experience more enjoyable.
Now go ahead, create your own character! Have fun making multiple characters, and let them lead your story!
Kelly Barr says
Good article. It is clear that you have a good knowledge of story writing. I would like to suggest that you continue to learn about writing and keep improving your writing because a good writer never stops doing these things. I would also like to suggest that you study what is called Deep POV (point of view). I am studying that right now, and learning to use it will make a story draw readers even deeper into your writing.
Keep up the good work.
Hailey W says
Thank you! And you are right, a good writer never stops trying to learn more of the writing craft!
Deep point of view huh? I will have to look into that. I’ve heard of the other POVs but never that one. Also, stay tuned, because one of these days I’ll be posting on the topic of POV and why it matters.
These were great articles! I feel like I’ve got a pretty good start on a story now. I am not a teen, but I have been trying my hand at writing recently. Thanks for putting them together.
Hailey W says
Haha, anytime! Writing is an awesome way to express your thoughts and feelings- often times that’s what lets you write the best characters! I’m glad I could put the pieces together for you. 🙂 Wish you the best on your writing journey!