Characters are the core of any good story. If we care about a person, then we want to know what happens to them. If characters are dull and derivative, then we won’t care and won’t stick with them.
So how do you bring a character to life? What sorts of details will make them seem original, authentic, and worth a reader’s time?
Mannerisms are the most obvious starting place. Verbal ticks, catchphrases, and ways of behaving make your characters stand out from the crowd. Terry Pratchett was a master of this, and just a handful of his characters show how little details can give us insight into the mind within:
- Corporal Nobbs skulks in corners, a battered cigarette dangling between his lips.
- Granny Weatherwax glares, points and accuses, dominating the people around her.
- Nanny Ogg sings rude songs and talks a lot about her family.
- DEATH TALKS LIKE THIS.
The ways they speak and act show a lot about who these characters are, making them instantly recognizable and endlessly memorable.
Flaws and Faults
Perfect characters are as boring as they are unrealistic. Flaws humanize characters, making them feel more rounded and real. Anyone who’s ever smoked understands why John Constantine never quits, even after it took pacts with demons to save him from cancer. Hulk’s anger issues and Captain America’s occasional naivety add humor to the Avengers film.
You can go too far with this. Victoria Geffer, in Writing For You, draws a useful distinction between flaws and faults. All characters should have flaws, little quirks and failings we sympathize with. But deeper faults – the really nasty stuff – should normally be saved for villains. We like Han Solo because he’s a liar and a braggart, and there aren’t enough scoundrels in our lives. We hate Darth Vader because he’s a murderer and oppressor. One has flaws, the other deep faults.
Just as nobody in real life is perfect, nobody is perfectly consistent. A little inconsistency can bring a character to life.
This is a tricky one to get right. Our expectations of stories mean that the characters in them have to be more consistent than real human beings, or readers will think the writer has made a mistake. But giving a character a couple of conflicting characteristics can create interesting dilemmas, as well as humanizing them.
Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice hates the way she and her family are treated based on the assumptions of others. Yet her own prejudices prevent her from seeing the world as it is. By the last act of the story, she faces a more recognizable conflict, between her attraction to Mr. Darcy and her dislike of him. Conflicting characteristics make Elizabeth one of the most enduring characters in literature.
Foibles and eccentricities add color to a character in more light-hearted ways than flaws. Unlike mannerisms, they aren’t a matter of persistent speech and action, though they sometimes emerge that way. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is full of this – Peralta spends his money on fads and whims; Santiago wants things to be neat and tidy; Terry loves yogurt.
Foibles can be particularly entertaining when they provide contrast – in Writing for Comics, Peter David points out the clash between the Hulk’s terrifying rage and his love of beans.
Love, Hate, and Fear
A character’s deeper drives can make them interesting, as long as they aren’t just the obvious choices. We all expect a character to love her partner, hate her enemies and fear death. But what else matters to her? Is her greatest hatred reserved for inequality, lies, or those who hurt children? Which does she fear more, failure or pain? By knowing and showing a character’s deeper drives, you give them a depth of interest that surface foibles and mannerisms won’t provide.
Dealing With Pain
Responses to pain tell us a lot about someone. They can drive your story, as well as differentiate characters from each other. It’s common for protagonists to grow strong in the face of pain, but not everyone reacts like that. Does a character run from pain, fight back against it, or curl up and try to hide? Do you want to include a character who enjoys pain, uses it to punish themselves, or is motivated by it?
And the Rest…
There are dozens of ways to make characters different, even without considering the deeper matter of character arcs and motivation. Hopefully, the ones above will give you a way to get started, to flesh out a character who’s falling flat or start creating someone new and interesting.