Imagine a world of books – fiction and nonfiction – peopled by stick figures, very thin because they are not filled out with any of the attributes that make a character a character or a person a person. They have no looks, no likes, no emotions, no history. Reading books with characters like this would be very dull indeed because ultimately what makes us care about the books we read is their humanity. Even books we read mostly for plot or information go down more memorably if they have appealing characters in them or are written by someone whose personality comes through.
How to create a compelling character? There are a lot of ten-step lists about this on the Internet and we don’t think most of them are very good. Hence, here are our own three tips for creating characters:
1) First, establish some facts about your character. Decide on or learn his or her circumstances in life. Where does this person live and in what sort of place? Know his/her likes and dislikes, background, and history. Be aware of what he or she looks like. Give him/her a name from the phone book or wherever you go to get names.
Sometimes the way a character talks will lead you to the other pieces of her/his personality. Sometimes you may find the key buried in the character’s psyche or in a piece of clothing she/he wears. You can model your character, if fictional, on a real person; you can literally give him or her movie star looks by using a real star as a template. Stay with it until the image you have in your mind is as real as a book character can be.
Make this character walk and talk in your mind, do things. How does he or she move? How sound? What is distinctive about the way he/she does these things?
Then imagine how this person might act in different situations.
2) When you first introduce your character in the book, give the reader a quick snapshot. A snapshot is not a full out description with eye-color, height and weight. It is a soupcon, a taste, that defines the character: powder-blue eyes that did not seem to focus on anything or wearing a bowler hat with an iridescent peacock feather waving from its band or a way of speaking like a continual sigh. This snapshot will give the reader an instant impression of who this person and an image to carry forward as the reader continues to read the book. It will also help the reader remember this person and make the reader curious to know more about the character.
3) Main characters certainly and even some minor ones should have a story arc within the book. Something should happen to each that changes that person so that they are in a different place at the end of the book. This arc can be your main plot if you have a character driven book. If not, it is just a thread that weaves through in conjunction with the main plot or information. For example, fictional characters could experience a romance, learn a lesson or come to some kind of acceptance. Non-fictional characters might have similar arcs as might the subjects of memoirs. A memoir would be poor reading if it was just page after page of life facts. If you are writing your story, think about your arc.
A character arc requires you to take the time to figure out what your characters are experiencing and feeling and doing at each stage of the plot. It can mean writing a story within a story. But it will give readers another reason to like and care about your book.
Finally, now that you have brought them to life, listen to your characters. You will be surprised what they might tell you and how they may affect the outcome of your story, if you are writing fiction. If your book is non-fiction, the people in it can add to the depth of your story, coloring it in ways you don’t expect.