What good is an amazing story without believable characters to drive it?
Readers need characters that make them feel something. That "something" can be envy, love, anger, annoyance, or any combination of emotions. Without that, your characters are just lifeless drones spewing dialogue across the page. That great exchange you spent three days mulling over, editing and rewriting can become a complete waste of time and effort if it is delivered by characters that the reader can't care about.
Invest in the Back-Story
If you want your characters to feel real you have to treat them like real people. Everyone you meet has lived their lives and experienced things that mold and shape who they are by the time the two of you cross paths. Those experiences will determine if and why they are cocky, for example, or timid, or introverted/ extroverted... You get the point.
It's imperative that you take the time to invent a back-story for everyone in your written universe. How was their childhood? Did they go to school? If so, were they bullied, or were they a bully themselves? Were they abused emotionally, physically, or otherwise? Did they grow up in a privileged environment or poor on the streets? What types of things happened to them in their lives that made them who they are by the time they reach your story?
As an author, I find this part of the process to be the most fun and rewarding for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, it validates your character as a living, breathing entity within your mind. By the time that character has a back-story, they are a part of you. You can then think like them, act like them, and speak like them. A friend of yours can ask you a random question and you -should- be able to, by that point, answer for both yourself and that character.
Another thing I personally enjoy about it is that I have these secrets that no one knows about and I can reveal them as we go. In fact, most of the time, the majority of a character's back-story doesn't ever need to hit the page unless specifically warranted by your story. All that matters is that you have them existing within yourself and you're able to channel them appropriately.
The final note I want to add to this is that a properly fleshed out character can open future doors for your writing. If you find that your audience enjoys that character and wants more, you can find yourself writing prequels, stand-alones, etc. A good portion of that work will already be done, locked in your mind, and ready for the page.
Take Advantage of Appearances
First impressions are the same both in text and in the real world. Sure, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but everyone is guilty of that in some way, at some point. Your character descriptions are directly linked to their back-story in that their outward appearance is a result of how your universe shaped their existence.
How they look physically and, to no lesser degree, how they dress should give your reader some insight to that past without giving them the whole story. Jeans and a tee shirt on a bearded man give an entirely different feel than a suit and tie on a clean-cut man.
I know what you’re thinking: "Duh! That's obvious!"
Well, it should be, but sadly there are many writers that make a mess of this by being too obvious or not obvious enough with their choices. In fact, sometimes it can be fun to purposely misdirect your audience through the outward appearance of a character. For example, why not dress a man in clothes that don't necessarily "fit" his character?
Your audience, as in real life, would be shocked to find that the guy with the neck tattoo and blue jeans, the one that everybody expects to be a zombie slaying badass, is really a theoretical physics major at M.I.T. That tidbit can remain secret until you, the author, see fit to make that reveal. Your reveal can carry so much more weight with that one simple tweak, especially if the surrounding characters treat him similarly.
Also, don't forget that every scar tells a story, whether it be emotionally or physically. You could casually mention a small stitch mark over someone's eye then expand on her entire personality by simply telling the story of how she came to have that scar. Lots to think about!
Provide for Growth and Change
At the end of your story, a well-created character should have changed drastically by the events that unfolded. I have never read a story in which a character remained the exact same person from beginning to end. Not one that I cared about, anyway. Sometimes, the growth isn't always that glaring, but often there is something major that changes about them from when you originally wrote that back-story in your head.
What did they learn? Were they good then became evil? Were they weak then became strong? Hated then became liked?
Characters should evolve at least a little with every interaction and conversation. You should strive to challenge their motivations and their fictional preconceptions that you laid out in their back-story and force them to face who they are by putting them in situations that are purposefully out of their comfort zone.
Their reactions to those situations will define whether your audience loves them or hates them. I can't see why anyone would feel connected to a timid girl running from zombies... but as soon as you force that timid girl to face her fears and smash in a skull with a shovel, BOOM, people are rooting for her.
Listen to Your Readers
I encourage you to look more deeply into reader comments, both the positive and negative ones. With the explosive popularity of publishing stories as online serials, authors have a very powerful tool at their disposal these days. That tool is the instant feedback of their comments section. Sadly, many authors use these comments to feed their own egos and they often find themselves smiling as people praise the job they’re doing.
Watch closely how your audience reacts to specific characters and the things they do or say. Use them to your advantage. If you see them hating on one of your beloved characters, you might find yourself writing a redemption arc. If you notice them getting bored with the dialogue of a particular character, spice it up by putting them in more difficult predicaments.
I once noticed that a support character of mine had become so popular that he was, in essence, “stealing the show” and detracting from my overall vision… He’s dead now.
Just remember to always serve your story. Never inject a character into a scene just to give them lines. Never consciously write “filler”. Every line needs a reason to be there. Every character interaction needs to serve a purpose, whether it is to develop themselves or another character further. Only then will the success, failure, trials and tribulations, and yes, even the death of a character really hit home with your audience.
- Steve Kuhn Jr.
Author of the Dext of the Dead series published by Books of the Dead Press, and Run Lilly Run,
an online zombie fiction serial.
Dext of the Dead Books 1-5 available as eBooks on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Coming soon in paperback to the same outlets.
Run Lilly Run currently available as an online serial at Kuhn's website
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Steve Kuhn on Twitter or tweet @dextandcrew