How to Write Better Characters
Get to Know Your Characters:
Sit down with them over a glass of wine, cup of coffee, or even milk and cookies. (My personal favorite because you can tell a lot about a person by their favorite cookie. My favorite: Oreos or my mom’s chocolate chip cookies.)
But don’t just ask the typical “favorite” questions.
Ask what they think about life, what are they excited about, what are their dreams and aspirations, hobbies, fears.
What are their first thoughts when they wake up in the morning?
What do they think about when they go to bed or in the shower?
Where do they feel the most at peace?
What situations make them grind their teeth?
What pet peeves do they have?
If they had a million dollars, what would they spend it on?
Get creative with your questions and you’ll be surprised at how your characters respond.
Treat Your Characters Like People:
Give them shape. Give them meaning. Flesh them out. They need food, sleep and air to survive. They need attention and to get their stories heard.
They have physical bodies that take up space within their world and they react to it. They are acted upon and act within their boundaries. Tell that story. Make them real to a reader because the more real they are, the better your reader will understand them.
The reader is looking through a glass pane at your characters. The more they know them, the more they feel for them, the closer to the glass you bring your character until they stand staring at each other.
Your Character’s Identity:
Put yourself in your character’s shoes to feel for them, but don’t forget who they are.
You’ve heard not to write yourself into a character, but it’s impossible to create something entirely not you. Know their mind and why they differ.
And don’t try shoving them into your mold or anyone else’s for that matter. What makes people stand out is how different they see the world. There are millions of people who like the same things, do the same things, act the same way, but there is no one who is the same.
Make your characters just as diverse as the people you meet. You don’t want cookie cutter characters who are flat and uninteresting, like so and so from every other book.
Give them flaws:
No one is perfect. Not even Superman. People who present perfection don’t feel real to us. Don’t try to create perfect characters. Give them a legitimate setback or knowledge gap. Let them make mistakes and figure out for themselves who they are without judgement from you.
Let them take scenes and run away. You want realism. There’s nothing more realistic than a character doing whatever they want.
Love them for the imperfect creations that they are and so will your readers. Your interest shows in your writing. If you’re bored, so is your reader.
Don’t be afraid to take your time getting to know your characters or your story.
It takes time to get to know people. If you want to treat your characters the way they deserve, you need to give them time. Tinker with them, test their reactions to certain things.
I’m not saying people who write fast are bad at writing or characterization. What I’m saying is that personally, I like to explore every angle of a person before I know them well enough to like them or not. I think my characters are just as complex as living humans.
The same goes for the plot and the settings. My books want to breathe on their own. I just need to know them well enough to give them life and then know when to back away and let it breathe on its own.
People have said to you that it’s what’s on the inside that counts and its true. But people think in images. When your characters pop up on the page, it’s a much easier, cozier and colorful experience for your reader if they know what the character’s look like instead of just imagining amorphous blobs.
Giving your characters faces, defining physical attributes and maybe signature gestures helps your reader get in touch with your characters, to see them and then to connect. We’re not just talking hair and eye color, even though it helps. Are they short and does that make it difficult for them to reach the top shelf? Are they constantly ducking under doorways? Is their makeup just right or do they get a smear or speckle of mascara off sometimes? Does their hair frizz in humidity? Do they have scars?
Not to mention that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Do they wear certain items to accentuate their body type or hide it? What pains do they take over their physical appearance, if any, and how do they feel about it?
Also, you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with a list of information about your character. Some things are fine to let your audience find out on their own.
Go do the things your characters love to do. Experience their daily life or get as close as you can to understand them. Easier said than done, but much more effective to your characterization as well as adding color to the story because you can explain the sensations, the excitement and the routine of say, hauling hay or skateboarding. Get as close to your characters as you can.