Creating fictional characters is a big subject, and something you simply can’t afford to get wrong if you want your novel to be successful.
All of the articles in this section will teach you everything you need to know to build great story people in your imagination. But there is a huge potential stumbling block you face right at the beginning of this process, and it is this…
Creating the wrong kinds of characters in the first place.
Imagine if you went to a party and all of the guests were either dislikeable or, worse, deadly dull. How long would it take you to make your excuses and get out of there?
Well, it’s the same with reading a novel: your audience just isn’t going to stick around if all of the novel’s characters, like the guests at that party, are either not very nice or not very interesting.
With that in mind, here is the first rule of creating fictional characters: Make the readers care. Make them care if your characters win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die.
How, precisely, do you make the readers care? You simply have to do some (but not all) of the following eight things…
1. Make the Characters Charismatic
Not good looking, necessarily – though readers will more readily warm to a handsome or a beautiful character than to an ugly one. (Shallow, I know, but such is life.)
Nor do your fictional characters need to be eloquent and witty and have the ability to always know the right thing to say – though, again, these things certainly won’t hurt.
There simply has to be something about them.
They have to be the kind of people whose presence electrifies a room, the kind of people you can’t take your eyes off. If a fictional character can walk into a room unnoticed, readers probably won’t take much notice of them, either.
2. Make the Characters Likeable
Or better still, loveable! We all know that there are people in life that we instantly take to, and people we duck into doorways to avoid. The question is, what qualities separate the nice from the not-so-nice?
Kindness? Generosity? Selflessness? Yes, all of these things – plus probably a thousand other traits.
Readers tend to love fictional characters who…
- Are dependable.
- Are modest.
- Keep their promises.
- Play fair. (Not that they won’t break the rules, but they will have a strong moral code to keep them from crossing the line.)
- Don’t see themselves as being better than others.
- Help others for no personal gain.
- Have a sense of humor.
- Are courageous. (Not that they won’t show fear – in fact, it’s better if they do – but they must always overcome it.)
- Are willing to make sacrifices for the wider good.
- Have goals we can sympathize with.
- Tell the truth.
- Are level-headed.
- Are smart – more in a street wise, common-sensical way than an intellectual one.
- Are even-tempered.
- Are kind and generous and compassionate to others.
- Are the victims of an injustice.
- Are uncomplaining.
- Are volunteers – that is, they are willing to put themselves forward to do whatever needs to be done without being press-ganged into action.
- Are cool under pressure.
It goes without saying that you don’t want all the characters in your novel to be likeable or loveable, particularly not the villains. These characters, you want to make dislikeable.
(And, yes, making a character dislikeable is still a way of making the reader care – they will simply care that the character gets what is coming to them.)
Readers tend to dislike fictional characters who…
- Cannot be relied upon.
- Are immodest braggers.
- Break promises and let people down – and don’t care that they do.
- Play dirty. (Not only do they break the rules, they break the “unbreakable” rules.)
- Are ugly or deformed. (Movie villains often have scars or a bad complexion.)
- Think of themselves as superior to others.
- Are self-serving.
- Are humorless.
- Are ultimately cowards.
- Are selfish, only out for what they can get for themselves.
- Have goals and dreams and ambitions which don’t strike us as worthy.
- Tell lies.
- Are insane – a little or a lot.
- Are overly intellectual.
- Are inconsistent in their behavior and suffer from mood swings.
- Are bullies, even sadists.
- Are responsible for injustices against others.
- Whine and complain about their own problems.
- Never volunteer but have to be drafted.
- Panic under pressure.
(I don’t claim that this list – nor the previous one – is exhaustive, but the points should give you a good idea of the sorts of traits to look out for when creating an heroic, or a villainous, character of your own.)
Whether you make the reader care about a character by making them likeable or dislikeable, beware of making the good characters in a novel too good, and the bad ones too bad…
- If a hero is pure and noble with no flaws or imperfections whatsoever, readers, far from loving them, might go to the opposite extreme and hate them for being too saint-like. (Or maybe hate is putting it too strongly, but they will certainly want to see the character’s halo knocked off!)
- Equally, if a dislikeable character is wholly evil with not a single redeeming virtue, they might end up more like a pantomime villain – hated, yes, but in more of a comic way.
Yes, you still want the readers to basically love your hero and basically hate whichever character is trying to thwart the hero’s plans.
But if you can work some ambiguity into the story, by having the protagonist not be wholly good and the antagonist not wholly bad, the story will be much stronger as a result.
As a matter of fact, it’s a good idea to think of your novel as not having heroes and villains at all, but rather characters with opposing goals, each of whom is right in his or her own mind.
3. Make the Characters Interesting
Let’s say that your central character is an accountant who has been married for over 40 years and is nearing retirement.
Yawn, yawn, yawn!
But also make him a roulette expert who is planning to cheat the casino out of millions with the help of a 19-year-old pole dancer called Kandy and the readers will sit up and take notice!
As with all of these character traits I am discussing, the specific qualities which make a character interesting – or charismatic, likeable, whatever – are ones you will have to decide upon for yourselves.
But here are some of the things that would make a fictional character interesting to me…
- The job they do – a spy, perhaps, or someone who quit the rat race to farm Alpacas, or a tightrope walker with vertigo.
- The places they have been and the sights they have seen – the more exotic and unusual, the better.
- Their skills and talents – playing the harpsichord, perhaps, or the ability to perform magic or to walk on fire.
Your list would probably look very different, but if the things you use to make fictional characters interesting are interesting to you, you will be able to write about them with enough passion to interest the people who count: the readers.
4. Make the Characters Both Ordinary and Extraordinary
This one touches upon some of the traits I have already mentioned, but it is worth talking about separately because it is important.
Generally speaking, we are drawn to people who are “just like us” and wary of people who are not.
It follows, therefore, that for a reader to care about a character in a novel, at least initially, it helps if they are an ordinary, regular person – a kind of James Stewart or Tom Hanks “everyman” figure (or the female equivalent, of course).
But that is only half of the story. As readers, we will soon grow bored of such a character if there isn’t something about them that is unusual and exotic and mysterious.
The ideal fictional character, then, will be both…
- Familiar… and unfamiliar.
- Just like us… and not like us at all.
- Ordinary… and extraordinary.
In short, creating fictional characters is a kind of balancing act…
It is a character’s ordinariness that will make the novel’s readers warm to them initially. And it is whatever is extraordinary about them that will prick the audience’s curiosity and make them want to stick around for more.
Another way of putting it is that ordinary characters are realistic (because they are just like us), while extraordinary characters are romantic.
I don’t mean romantic in the “love” sense – although that can be part of it. I mean it in the “not the way the world really is” sense. The difference between romance and realism is the difference between the way we would like life to be and the way it more often is…
- Life would be wonderful if it were all wine and roses.
- More often, though, it is hangovers and pricked fingers.
Romance exists, of course, but tends to be fleeting; for the rest of the time we are stuck with the way things actually are.
How does that apply to creating characters in a novel? We would like to believe that characters like James Bond or Superman or Sherlock Holmes could actually exist, but in reality they are too remote, too godlike for us to truly believe in them.
Don’t get me wrong – romantic characters are good. But only to an extent…
On the one hand, we need our heroes to be heroic. When we read a novel or watch a movie, we are not looking for a realistic representation of the way things actually are. If we wanted that, we could save ourselves some cash and look out of our windows instead.
It makes us feel good to be in awe of heroic characters in a novel. They represent the way we would like to be but know we never can be (except, of course, in our wildest daydreams). It does us good to step into their shoes for a couple of hours.
On the other hand, too much romanticism in a protagonist is ultimately tedious. If a leading character is too perfect, it is difficult to feel any connection with them. We might admire their romantic qualities, but without any recognizable realistic qualities it is difficult to imagine ourselves inside their skin.
I am a fan of the musician Bruce Springsteen. When he stands on stage in front of 80,000 fans, there is something godlike about him. There isn’t a single member of the audience who wouldn’t like to be in his shoes. Equally, it is easy to imagine him rolling up his sleeves and helping you change a flat tire in the car park afterwards.
It his romantic qualities that make you want to be like him, and his realistic qualities that make you like him. Springsteen himself said that the day he looks into the crowd and can’t see himself standing there is the day he quits.
Now for “realistic” fictional characters…
Realistic characters in fiction are just like us. We can recognize ourselves in them, and we therefore find them easy to like. We can imagine them living next door to us, inviting us round for a beer. Here are some examples…
- Lieutenant Columbo.
- Doctor Watson (compared to the romantic Sherlock Holmes).
- George Smiley.
Like I said above, though, realism by itself is not enough. Just as pure romanticism in a character can soon become boring (because they are too remote for us to empathize with them), so pure realism is equally boring (because ordinariness is dull). That is why ostensibly realistic characters are never as realistic as they first appear.
Take Lieutenant Columbo (I’m sure you have all seen him on TV portrayed by Peter Falk)…
- What makes Columbo realistic (and therefore endearing) is his unique brand of bumbling ineptitude. He is always forgetting things. He never appears to be making much progress on the case. You want to give him some cash to buy himself a decent coat.
- What makes him romantic (and therefore interesting) is that he always solves the case in the end. He might come across as a hopeless detective but he is actually anything but. You think he is stupid but his mind his razor sharp. You wish you could be as good as him, but you know you never can be.
Romantic realism… realistic romanticism…
I said above that one way to make readers care about your fictional characters is to make them both ordinary and extraordinary. And that is what you must do…
Give the characters in your own novel – particularly the leading character – the perfect mix of ordinary realism and extraordinary romanticism…
- The realism will make readers like them, perhaps even love them.
- The romanticism will make readers be a little in awe of them.
Whether you make the character predominantly realistic, or predominantly romantic, is down to you.
Generally speaking, characters from genre fiction tend to be essentially romantic, while characters in literary novels tend to be essentially realistic. Although as we have just seen with Columbo, this is only a rule of thumb and is frequently not the case.
Depending on the decision you make, you then have to do one of two things…
- If you have created a romantic character, you need to decide what is ordinary about them.
- If you have created a realistic character, you need to decide what is extraordinary about them.
5. Make the Characters Well-Motivated
Which of the following characters in a novel do you think a reader will care most about…
- Rita, who takes a second job as a waitress to help put her teenage son through college?
- Or Mary, who takes a second job as a waitress to pay for cosmetic surgery?
It’s got to be Rita, right? But what if I tell you that…
- Rita only needs the money because she blew her son’s college fund feeding her drug habit.
- And Mary needs the cosmetic surgery because her ex-husband pressed a hot iron into her face.
(That’s the great thing about creating fictional characters – as writers, we have an almost god-like power in changing how characters are perceived.)
Every character in a novel wants something. If we, as readers, can support their goal – and, more importantly, the motivation behind it – we won’t only care about them, we’ll be cheering from the sidelines the whole way through.
6. Make the Characters Dynamic
Life is full of troubles, and characters in novels face more troubles than most of us. (The writer John Irving once said that he doesn’t create characters for a novel so much as victims.)
In the real world, we can get away with sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. But fictional characters can’t, at least not for long – not if they want the readers to care about them.
Whatever problems a character in a novel faces – and they will face plenty – too much self-pity or stoical suffering just isn’t an option for them. Readers expect them to do something, to act, to take some concrete action designed to make the situation right – and they expect them to do it sooner rather than later.
7. Make the Characters Good At What They Do
It doesn’t matter what a character does in a novel, but they must be good at it.
For example, if your hero is a short-order cook, make him a great short-order cook – the best one in town. The same thing applies if they are a cop, a circus clown, an assassin, or a city trader.
Alternatively – and particularly if you are writing a comic novel – you can make them truly terrible at what they do…
- Make your hero a stand-up comic who bungles every punch-line.
- Make them a teacher who can’t stand children.
- Make them a sports coach who has never won a game.
Make them very good (or very bad) at what they do, and the reader will sit up and notice them. They will admire them for being good or else sympathize with them for being inept. Either way, they will care.
8. Make the Characters A Little Unhappy
I’m being serious. Make a character lonely, bereaved, broken-hearted – something like that – and the readers will be sure to sympathize. (And what is sympathy if not a way of caring?)
Just don’t go over the top with it…
Give a fictional character a small shard of ice in their hearts and the readers will be sure to sympathize.
Allow the character to truly wallow in whatever it is that is making them unhappy and the readers (perhaps a little cruelly) will start to think, Oh, for God’s sake, pull yourself together and get over it!
Caveat: Be Selective
Don’t give every single one of the characters in your novel every single one of these traits…
- Your leading man or woman should certainly have two or three of them, in varying degrees, because they are the ones the readers will spend the most time with.
- Other characters might have only one of the traits.
You will have to use your judgement and trust your instincts on this…
You want readers to care about all of your characters, even the humble minor with just one scene and a couple of lines of dialogue. But your protagonist should always hold the number one spot in their hearts.
And one last thing…
Never create a plain, dull, ordinary character – because the readers simply won’t care about them. But if you have to create a character whose defining characteristic is dullness, make them extraordinarily dull!