What’s the easiest way to enter a reader’s Hall of Shame?
Writing flat, boring, or unconvincing characters, that’s what. If a reader doesn’t make a connection with your main character, you’ve lost her, not only for this book but probably for eternity. Scary, right?
Here’s what you can do to avoid it.
“No one’s perfect” is a common saying. In fiction, refer to it as a rule. There is no perfect character. If your character is gorgeous, talented, a genius, compassionate, and good with animals, odds are you’re writing a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu. Most people can’t stand this kind of characters, for good reason. They’re boring. They always have the perfect solution. They’re never conflicted or stuck.
[A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu or Marty Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.]
In reality, we all have flaws and internal conflict. Embrace them. They’re the stuff that makes your characters interesting. If you really love your character—burden it with some emotional or mental wounds. The more they struggle, the more readers will love them.
Round Them Up
Not by making them fat, but by making them rich and fully-realized. Each character has some basic traits and some dominant feelings. Choose these wisely. Create surprising combinations, combinations that produce internal conflict and idiosyncrasies. For example, a geeky, shy, introverted programmer is cliché. But a lazy, fun-loving, and street-smart programmer will cause a lot of people to stop for a second look.
It’s a good sign if a combination of traits makes you go, “Wow, how did s/he get like that?” If the combination itself is interesting, there must be an interesting story behind it, and we all love an interesting story.
At the end of this article you’ll find a list of traits and feelings for your mix-and-match pleasure.
Let Them Go
The characters you write are not you. Repeat after me: the characters you write are not you. They will always have something of you in their psyche, but they’re not you. You need to let them go.
That means they have their own opinions on politics and religion. It means they can be optimistic or pessimistic, introverted or extroverted, sunny or sullen, regardless of what you are. If you inject too much of your personality into all of your protagonist, they will read like a cookie-cutter crew of common characters. (Alliteration overdose, anyone?)
You’ll know when your characters are getting a separate life when you feel yourself recoil from their actions, or at least think, “Whoa, I wouldn’t do that.”
Don’t be afraid to get their hands dirty. Everyone has something s/he is ashamed of, or something they don’t want the world to see, or something that makes them ugly. So should your characters. Show them in all the glory of their humanness (unless they’re salt shakers).
Make Them Grow
Choose a trait, a belief, or a dominant emotion of your character and write a story that credibly turns it around. Keep your transformations reasonable. The shyest kid in class will not become an extrovert stud who dates the prom queen, not unless there’s some killer explanation behind the change. It’s the more subtle questions that leave the strongest impression, sometimes.
For short stories, keep the change in only one trait or emotion. For longer stories, you can introduce more intricate changes in character.
But if your list of traits and emotions is the same at the beginning and end of your story—you’ve missed something critical.
Refer to the list of emotions and traits at the end of this article for some help.
Make Them Memorable
Give them a quirk, a turn of phrase, a tic, something that makes them stand out. Don’t overuse it, either way—don’t give a tic to every character, and don’t have your character practice that tic all the time, unless it’s very subtle. A tic doesn’t replace a personality, but it’s through these mannerisms that we get a sense that person is really alive.
Sum It Up
Study your characters in depth and give them an inner world rich with emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes. (Use our super cheat-sheet at the end of this article for that.) Create unusual combinations. Celebrate difference. That’s the fastest way into a reader’s heart and into their whitelist of authors.
More about: Characters