There are two kinds of writers in the world. There are those who are character-driven, and those of us who are plot-driven. Many of my stories are exciting, breathtaking adventures that keep you on the edge of your seat. But I have learned the hard way that, unless the reader cares about what happens to the characters in the story, the story will be flat and the reader will lose interest.
That’s not to say that the reader has to like every character. What it does mean is that whether the character lives or dies, succeeds or fails, should matter to your reader. Even villains can fall short unless they are more than two-dimensional cliches.
So here are a few tips on developing characters, based on my own experience, which may vary greatly from that of other writers.
1. Good guys are not all good. Bad guys are not all bad. As I mentioned before, you have to add personal flaws, foibles, doubts and mistakes to your protagonist to make him not only believable, but someone you readers can relate to. It’s called making him human. The same goes, in opposite regards, to your antagonist. Show that he really cares about what he is doing, that he believes that his goal is the best thing for mankind. And if that doesn’t work, show that he really is insane.
2. Build your characters in layers. This is where I differ from some authors. I don’t know–really know–who my protagonist is until I write about him. I find myself building him as I go along. I also believe strongly in foreshadowing, which I am not afraid or hesitant about adding after the fact. For example, the story I am working on right now has a protagonist who is an investigative journalist who has anger issues since his wife died. Interesting, but it is easy to fall into cliches at this point. So as I have him interact with other characters, I discover parts of him I didn’t know existed. Twice I have people suggest that he get a dog to help him with his anger issues. He replies that he doesn’t need a dog. On the surface, one might think that’s just his anger talking again. But the real reason he says that he doesn’t need a dog is because he already has one. When his wife died, he inherited her pampered miniature Pomeranian named Amber. Adding the dog adds a little humor into story, gets us in touch with his humanity and shows us a little different side of him. I didn’t start out with the dog, but have added him after the fact, knowing what is best for my protagonist.
3. Don’t tell us about your character. Show us. I am moving more and more into the camp that believes that exposition–explaining what’s going on–actually hurts your story. It’s preferable to leave your reader with more questions than answers. With that in mind, don’t spend several paragraphs, or even one long paragraph, telling the reader about who your character is. Rather, bring it out by showing details of his or her life, through dialog, and through actions. Exposition slows down the story; dialog and action speeds it up.
I am sure you have plenty of other suggestions on how to build characters. Feel free to comment here, and I’ll be glad to share this as well.