What is a character? Characters are beings that populate your story. While a character doesn’t necessarily have to be human—many stories are filled with talking animals, for example—your characters must be dynamic, rounded, and three–dimensional beings. Your protagonist is your primary character, but quite often, books contain an entire cast—including an antagonist, secondary characters, and even those who make a cameo appearance or who only appear a few times in the story.
Each character should have a distinct personality—whether you’re writing about a woman from the 1800s, a two-headed alien from the distant future, or a talking pig, you should come to know your character inside and out. Authors use a variety of tools to help them create three-dimensional characters, including character charts, character “interviews,” and character profiles. (Note: I linked to one sample of each, but if you Google these terms, you’ll find dozens more. If one doesn’t meet your needs, keep looking!) While you might look at these examples and think they cover more material than you’ll ever use in your story, you’d be right, but some authors find them very helpful.
Example: A protagonist’s parents divorced when he was five, and he never saw his father again. Can you see how knowing this information might assist the author in forming a believable, reasonable reaction for said protagonist who later finds out his girlfriend of only one month is pregnant?
An antagonist who was raised in Brooklyn will speak and behave differently than one who grew up in LA. Knowing a character’s background can provide you with a ton of fodder for characterization (ways of speaking, mannerisms, that scar she has on her belly…a reminder of an emergency C-section, for example). Knowing your character well can even assist you when the time comes to describe a setting.
Example: Protagonist #1 grew up in the projects, was raised by her single mother, and had to survive on food stamps and hand-me-down clothes. What might she notice when she and her date (a wealthy oil magnate) first enter the senator’s wedding reception, held at a five-star, New York City restaurant?
Protagonist #2 grew up in Beverly Hills, surrounded by money and glamorous people. Mom was a movie star, and Dad was a famous director. What might she notice when she and her date first enter the senator’s wedding reception, held at a five-star, New York City restaurant?
See what I mean? Rather than giving a rundown of the furniture, paintings, and floor covering when your protagonist first enters a room, consider allowing him or her to guide you regarding what you describe, and tie in the description with the protagonist’s perspective. What does your poor protagonist notice? More food than she and her eleven siblings could have eaten in a month? The glitter of diamonds and sparkling jewels dripping from the necks and arms of the other ladies—the value of which could pay your protagonist’s rent on her tiny, one-bedroom apartment for the next five years? The gold-gilt-framed artwork—originals, no doubt—which puts her Target-brand wall art to shame? Is she suddenly reminded she doesn’t belong in this world, or does she become more determined than ever to achieve her goal of fame and fortune? Your wealthy protagonist, on the other hand, might recall previous glamorous receptions she has attended, and compare them to this one… Or maybe she has liberal, progressive values, and despite growing up with wealth, she despises wastefulness and is appalled by the amount of food or thinks about what she could do to help the poor with all the money the senator and his wife must have spent on their wedding. Always think in terms of your character’s personality, values, etc., and look for opportunities to “show” these traits to your readers in each scene. How a character reacts in any given situation can show readers quite a bit about that character’s personality, morals, values, fears, etc.
Every character, regardless of who (or what!) they are, needs to have a few basic personality elements—they must want something, they must need something, they must have a goal, and they must have something they fear. In many cases, the fear is change. Or the fear can be deep set, something from his or her childhood (another great reason to do a character chart or interview!). Maybe Daddy was a racist, and your hero finds himself falling in love with someone of another race?
Keep in mind, boring character descriptions are exactly that—boring. Don’t introduce each new character with a description of his or her appearance. Instead, bring in bits and pieces of the character’s physical traits via action, dialogue, and other characters’ observations.
You don’t have to fully describe everyone—especially minor characters. And a character’s physical appearance can have an impact on who they are and how they behave.
Examples: A character who has crooked teeth might not smile broadly very often/might be shy about laughing or showing joy. A character with chubby cheeks and deep dimples might be considered jolly—but this could be used to “show” readers the character is the opposite. “She looked like Mrs. Claus but acted more like Mrs. Frankenstein.” 🙂
And finally, keep in mind, even plot-driven stories should have interesting, fully developed characters. If you put effort into populating your story with believable, interesting characters, readers will become more immersed in your story and come to care about seeing your protagonist succeed in achieving his/her goals.