Your characters are the pillars of your story. Firstly, regardless of your POV, readers need an interesting shoulder to perch on and experience the narrative. Secondly, it’s the people of a plot that help it develop, so, apart from guiding, they should also be growing as the tale unfolds.
Doing all this is tricky. Nobody has an easy time, but there are a few strategies you can follow to develop a strong fictional character. Here are seven suggestions for constructive and interesting characterisation.
1. Use Real-Life Inspiration
Appreciate everyone who crosses your path. What about them intrigues you? What makes them tick? Make a mental or actual note of your impressions to potentially use later in a character.
If you get strange looks or a restraining order, you’ve gone too far… 😉
Basically, even the worst of people can inspire your fictional villain or your anti-hero’s dark side. Anything from mottos to mannerisms could add depth to characters. And you’ll know such qualities are natural because they came from actual people to begin with.
2. Create a Character Profile
It’s handy to have all your ideas about an important character in one place. It helps create a robust persona and spot any flaws, but also lets you come back and check your notes if you forget details.
Pen and paper or sticky notes are a good place to start. However, technology has extra fun tools to offer, from MS PowerPoint to mind mapping apps like Ayoa. Find a process that works for you, making you comfortable and productive.
3. Avoid Character Clichés
Considering how little exists that isn’t already recycled, the closer you can get to creating a unique fictional character the more brownie point you can look forward to. Familiarising yourself with tropes helps recognise them and either steer clear or re-invent them.
Character cliches include:
- Brooding hunk
- Femme fatale
- Love triangle
- Stereotypical bully
- Crazy old lady
If you do go for something familiar, give it an interesting spin. Something recycled can still surprise you, so play with the mould and try to upturn your readership’s norms.
4. Set Goals for Your Character’s Journey
While planning a character, especially your protagonist, establish their milestones within the plot. Even having them travel from A to B, for example, are dots you can work on connecting.
Of course, the more definite goals you have, the easier it is to write the bits in between. One way to approach it is by starting with the start, middle, and end. Then set the events leading up to each big part of their arc.
It’s normal for things to change as you write or after you’ve finished. But you and your character have a map to keep you going, at least.
And the aim of all this—for the protagonist especially—is to ensure they evolve. If they come out the other end of your story unchanged, your work’s far from done.
5. Listen to the Character
Apart from establishing their fictional path and a bunch of characteristics in a compelling way, you need to let your characters speak to you—show you who they are.
As you work on your authorial voice, immerse yourself in the story and its people. You should start getting a feel for how they’d behave, speak, move, and so on.
Secondary characters could do with as much thought, if only to organise their role in the plot nicely. However, this doesn’t mean we need to know everything about everyone in the story. Pick the most relevant details and link them up.
6. Let the Character Take the Reins
Once you get into the process of writing your story, it’ll often take on a life of its own. Open you to completely new threads. Characters can surprise you in wonderful ways too, which is why listening to them is so important.
Unless you already know exactly where you’re going and what you want to achieve in every scene, chances are you’ll, now and then, hit a sluggish moment. Here, it’s worth just stepping into a character’s shoes and letting them take the lead.
Pushing through the unknown and grasping at figments of ideas are part of the magic of storytelling. Even if you change things in subsequent drafts, you keep the ball rolling and maybe come up with something ingenious.
7. Challenge the Reader
At the end of the day, you direct how complex your story will be. But if you dream of joining the ranks of influential literature, you need to put extra effort into the text. Its impact on readers determines its quality and success.
On that note, characters play an important part in the effects of any given narrative. And it’s not the cliché or polite figures that turn heads, put backs up, and make hearts bleed.
For one thing, characters typically evolve through crisis, so their paths need trials, truths, self-realisations, and other transformative factors that trigger or influence their development. Invested readers will feel the tension and grow themselves.
Fictional characters can also teach real-life lessons, for example, by upending readers’ expectations or challenging cultural norms. Put something meaningful into your characterisation that will make people think—reassess their perceptions of the world.
Coming up with fictional characters is hard enough without having to think about making them intriguing and convincing. But it’s important work. And putting your best foot forward from the get-go yields better results, saves you a lot of headache, and lets you enjoy the writing process a lot more. Planning and focus are essential as is a mind open to surprises and going against the grain.
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