What's the secret to writing the best story of your life? Here's a hint: It starts with characterization.
Great stories emerge from believable characters. Your characters become your reader's avatars. The reader can experience the world you created through your characters and their choices. Through your characters' eyes, your reader begins to understand the world you've made.
But characterization isn't just about experiencing your world like a video game. When you fully flesh out your characters, you can forge a connection with your readers, and that’s when the magic happens. The reader doesn't just see your world through your characters' eyes but begins to see themselves in your character. Even characters that aren’t relatable all the time can still create a connection for your readers to invest in your world.
A well-written character can elicit empathy from your readers.
Character empathy is significant because it makes the reader care about what happens to the characters in your story. Readers who relate to a character will learn the lessons that your character learns (or needs to learn). Those lessons will impact the reader long after they’ve closed your book and may even contribute to their ongoing growth as a human.
Okay, I’ll admit that it sounds absurd to think that a fictional character can change your life. But I challenge you to think of all the rich characters you’ve met in the pages of the books.
Do some of them stay with you and pop up periodically when you most need them?
For example, have you ever quoted a line from one of your favorite characters when hanging out with your friends? In the face of a difficult situation, have you ever looked to the story of a fictional character for guidance?
Characters, and the stories (or lives) they live, make a massive impact on our own. Good storytelling, which results from solid characters, helps us add meaning to our own lives.
But none of that happens if we create flat, unbelievable characters who are simply pawns to move the plot forward. Flawed characters don't think through choices. They move conveniently as the author needs them to move to make the story happen. Real characters, however, put up resistance. They may not always make the right choices, but they always make the best story. Resist the urge to start with the plot. Focus on the characters first, and let them form the story.
So how do you build strong characters? Let’s get into it.
Make Them Human
Your goal is to create a character who is unique, self-motivated, and flawed. In other words: You have to give life to a human being.
Each human is a unique individual. Even though we have similarities, none of us will walk the same path; we are each different.
Uniqueness requires more than simply combining quirky traits. That’s surface-level. You have to dig deeper than that.
To create a unique character, focus on their backstory. While you may not need to share all of your character's backstory with the reader, you must know where the character comes from and how their past experiences will influence their future choices. As you write them, regularly refer to their backstory to know what steps they’ll take.
When you have a solid understanding of the character's backstory, the reader will recognize the character is acting according to their internal logic.
Humans are also self-motivated. That doesn’t mean being a type-A go-getter who never procrastinates and is self-disciplined. Self-motivation simply means we have a reason to do what we’re doing. That could be climbing Mount Everest or laying on the couch watching Netflix.
Likewise, your characters need self-motivation to be believable. They won't feel authentic if they’re only moving as agents of the plot, and the story won’t either. But if your characters have a reason for their actions (tied to who they are at their core), it will be easier to connect with your characters and story.
Finally, humans are flawed. That much is obvious. Even the best of us have private struggles and the tendency to act out of fear. The worst of us will prey on the fears of others.
Your characters need flaws. Why? Your human readers will immediately reject the validity of a perfect character. For a character to be relatable, a reader needs to see themselves in that character. No human can see themselves as an altogether perfect and flawless character. That character needs to be scuffed up. There must be some part of them that is flawed. That’s where they become extraordinary.
How do you give a character a flaw?
This part comes easy.
When the character must make a pivotal choice, resist your natural tendency as an author to force the character to choose the best option for themselves. You, like the reader, will want the character to choose option A. You’ll consider their backstory and self-motivation to protect themselves from a perceived negative consequence and be inclined to take the simple path.
Sometimes, a person’s choice comes out of the left field. It will be ridiculous and make their course ten times harder. Writing it can make you question yourself as the author and wonder how you thought up such a crazy choice for the character. Let it happen. This inability to act in one’s best interest and instead act in one’s immediate interest is a flaw of realistic characters. You’ll show your character’s humanity by their choices. (Note: This still applies if your characters aren’t human.).
Make a Path of Progress
When your characters make bad choices, it doesn’t derail the story. Your story is about those characters' choices. Allowing your flawed characters to experience the consequences of their bad decisions will allow you to develop your characters further throughout the rest of your story.
But let’s back up for a second.
The first draft of your tale is all about developing your characters. When you build your characters well, everything else falls into place. Don’t force the story upon your characters. Instead, create the main catalytic event (i.e., the life-changing event at the beginning of your novel that causes the characters to respond) and let your characters tell you their own story.
The second draft is about fine-tuning your storytelling. If you’ve allowed the characters to be who they are—flawed, self-motivated, and unique—they’ve already lived out their story. They’ve already told you their story. You’ll just re-tell that story to your readers with a few enhancements. In the second draft, you draw the reader in by highlighting moments that will be meaningful to the reader. You make connections, ever so subtly, that will help the reader understand the more significant truths of your story. And you’ll use the readers’ link to your characters to do it.
And if you want your readers to learn from the story, your characters must also learn. They must grow. Otherwise, they become bound by the plot and lose their relatability.
Make sure you document how your characters grow, even if the growth is minuscule.
Top Exercises for Writing Stronger Characters
Here are three exercises to help you create more substantial and relatable characters.
- Develop a backstory for each main character. If the character lives in your story for longer than one page, they need a backstory. You may not reveal this backstory to the reader, but you must know everything your character has experienced.
- In one paragraph each, describe the central conflict from two perspectives: From your story's hero (i.e., protagonist) and your hero's opponent (i.e., antagonist). A deep understanding of the protagonist and the antagonist is vital to creating balance in your story. It prevents you from turning one character into a caricature.
- Write a short story about your main characters. Choose a different time in their lives before your story's events. Explore how the character responds and how their backstory affects their decisions. Bonus points if you can incorporate bits of this short story into the larger story of your novel.
The best way to write an unforgettable story is to focus on the characters. You're telling your characters' stories. If you want your reader to care about your story, give them characters to root for (or even against). Get started on the above exercises to ensure that your characters are rich, nuanced, and relatable.