Great Characters = Great Story
You know the feeling you get after finishing a really good book?
I'm not talking about just an ordinary good book but a book that ruled over your mind, heart, and soul like a literary dictator for the last week of your life.
That kind of book.
If this has never happened to you, then I highly recommend reading something different than what you are currently reading or used to reading.
Because there may not be another feeling quite like it, it's fantastic, but it usually has a tinge of sadness within it too, right? Well, for me, it does.
Why is that?
Most of the time, it's because I miss the characters as if they were my friends that just died tragically as soon as I closed the book. Sure the plot hooked me like a dead fish, but it was the characters, usually the main character that really kept my nose between the pages.
Then, there are other books we've come across that excite us with an interesting plot, but then something changes, something essential. Suddenly, that excited feeling is replaced with dread when you look over and see the unfinished book staring back at you. Instead of awakening your soul, this book feels like a dead weight attached to your ankle that you drag around for weeks, months, even years!
These are bad books. But, if you're anything like me, you still need to finish them or else you feel like a failure, haha! So, I drag these things behind me like an anchor, or maybe a badge of honor saying, "look at me, I don't give up."
Don't be like me.
Anyway, why are these books bad even with a decent plot?
Almost every time, it's because there are flat/boring characters involved.
What Makes a Character Flat?
A flat character is a forgettable one.
Or maybe the character doesn't respond the way a human normally would, and it's not part of their character quirk or anything like that.
To put it simply, to avoid writing flat characters, you need to think of how they would react/respond to the scene you're writing. Not only that, but you need to write believable dialogue.
Dialogue is the best, and in my opinion, the only way to build a life-like character. I'll talk about this more in this post and a later one for sure.
But, it's not just dialogue, it's how your character should react to the situations you put them in. The reader needs to believe your character.
One example could be a scene about a married couple where the wife is mad at her husband for something he didn't even do.
First, you have to consider how you created the wife's character. Have you made her out to be boisterous, big personality, bad temper? Or is she nonchalant, shy, and reserved?
Let's use the boisterous example... so when the husband comes home, how would this character react?
She'd come at him boldly with a question/declaration/action, right? Maybe even with fire in her eyes?
This is honestly where a writer has to be a decent actor or an incredible observer. A question to ask yourself is, does a human sound like this, and do they react in this way? If so, how would my character respond?
Another example that I did a lot, especially in my first book, and I apologize for this to anyone that has read it, but I must've had my main character "smirk" nine billion times throughout the entire story. He was a smirking addict, and no human smirks as much as my main character did in my novel, or else they'd drop dead of smirking.
Now, is that a small issue?
Sure, but to some, it probably turned them off to my story, and they closed it.
Keep your book open with believable characters in how they react according to how you made them.
Talk to Me
I mentioned briefly on why dialogue is vital in making a great character. Here is another quick example of a character falling flat during a scene. Let's say it's about two friends getting a drink. I used to do this a lot in my earlier writing. Try and see if you can spot the issue.
"Hi, Sam!" Erin hugged her friend and then took a seat at the table.
"Hi Erin, it's so great to see you," Sam said as he sat down across from her. "So, Erin, tell me what's new with you."
"Well, Sam, I've been doing good," Erin said as she took a sip from her drink. "How about you, Sam?"
Do you see it yet?
If not, it's the five times they have said each other's names in the lines of dialogue. Who talks like that? I don't know anyone who does, and I know I don't say someone's name every single time I'm addressing them. Yes, there are times when that may be more appropriate, but remember, this scene is between two friends, and you need to make the reader believe these are friends and not puppets.
So maybe something like this...
"Some asshole honked their horn at me on the way here," Erin said as she hugged her friend and gestured at the table. "Is this where we're sitting? Have you been waiting long? If so, blame the jerk."
"I do blame him, I blame him for everything wrong in this world." Sam shook his fist in the air and sat down. "Yeah, take a seat, maybe take a breath, and don't worry, I already have some wine coming for you."
See how this already paints a deeper picture of their relationship? They are comfortable with each other and not trying to figure each other out.
Before I move on, there is one more sin that writers do that can cause the character to feel flat, and that's focusing on the plot so much they sell out the character to ensure the plot moves forward.
What does that mean exactly?
The writer would have the character do or say something just to make sure the plot still makes sense, even if it meant sacrificing believability of the character. I tend to lean on the plot circling the character and not the other way around.
Don't be afraid of your characters surprising you as you write your novel.
Finally, we made it to the character outline part of the post. Guys, I'm going to be honest with you. My character outline is pretty bare compared to what some writers do. I've had a writer tell me they've even included the made-up birthdays for their characters in their outline!
That's not me...but it may be you and that's totally cool.
But, don't worry...I still complete an outline of sorts, and I will give an example of how I do it below, but how I do it is I tend to allow my characters to develop as I write.
What do I mean by this?
Well, if you've read my other posts, then you know rewrites are in your future. Your first draft will absolutely stink. I don't care if your name is Stephen King...there is no such thing as a good first draft. And if you tell me something different...I don't trust you, haha!
What I'm trying to say is that I use my rewrites to hone in on character development and add meat onto the bones of the draft.
As for the character outline itself, mine is pretty simple and basic, but here is a great resource if you want to check it out here for a more detailed approach.
Here is how I personally do it... I'm just going to make up a character.
John Smith - MC's New Friend - 17-years old
John is an only child... he's gotten everything handed to him on a silver platter...yeah that type of kid. He is average height, skinny, long fingers...has short buzzed hair and is blonde...brown eyes...round face with freckles...he has ears pierced and a hidden tattoo on his ribs that he did himself...he thinks he's a badass because of that...in fact, he brags that he's going to be a tattoo artist... he's not...he just thinks it's a badass job to have...so he puts on that kind of front...but honestly he's a scared and lonely kid...if you push him to the limits he will break easily...but there is hidden strength within him and room for a lot of potential growth...he is loyal to those he trusts and at start of the story he barely trusts the MC (that will grow). Etc…
So, I would do something similar for every character that plays a role in my story. I can be as detailed as I want to be or not...but I make sure to have enough details to where I know how the character would respond to certain situations.
Again, I've seen excruciating detailed character outlines...and for some epic stories, especially in high fantasy that may be needed to help you keep track. But It comes back to the question of what kind of writer are you? Plus, you'll find what you need the more you write.
I hope this post helps you build some awesome characters for the reader to become attached to in the future.
Who are some of your favorite fictional characters that you wish were real people?
Thanks for reading!