4 Ways to Make Your Characters More Interesting
Just a few methods for creating more three-dimensional characters
A lot of hard work and planning goes into writing fiction. If you don’t read countless articles and study a thousand techniques before you pick up a pencil, you run the risk of telling a bad story.
You probably don’t have time to read all those articles, but you don’t have to. You just need to master an important aspect of writing. Practice it enough and it’ll bring up the other aspects of your writing as well. Practice makes perfect, after all.
The aspect that any creative writer should try to get right is Characterization. Unfortunately, it’s one of the trickiest parts to get right.
It may seem easy to create characters. All you’ve got to do is create the funny one, the smart one, the cool one. In reality, that is the worst way to write characters. You can’t confine a complex, three-dimensional person to a box any more than you could with an actual person.
“I’ve never bought into any sort of hard and fast, this-box/that-box characterization. People are individuals. Yes, they may be expected to be a particular way. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be that way.”
— Margaret Atwood
Be careful not to end up with stereotypical, run-of-the-mill characters. You also shouldn’t try too hard, or you could run into any number of issues, including your characters coming off as annoying, needy, naive, and so on. The list could reach the stars and back.
What you want to do is find a place in the middle. You just need your characters to pop out and captivate the audience. Make them memorable, relatable, and inspiring.
I’ve listed four ways to accomplish that below.
1. Give Them a Defining Backstory
We’re all shaped by the events that made up our childhood. Our past shapes who we become. The same thing applies to our characters.
A character’s backstory is their history. It should explain some aspect of their current personality.
Create a handful of events from your character’s past that explains something about them. Their personality developed in a certain way when they were young, and it’s up to you to explain how.
For example, if one of your characters is confident and assertive, plot out a series of events from their past that made them that way. Make it something that sparks emotion. You could have it so that they were forced to step up because their parents weren’t around enough. Your character would have to grow up all by themselves.
Whatever their backstory is, make sure that your audience learns it at the right time. Some writers mess up and just insert a bunch of flashback scenes wherever they want. You have to realize that there’s a time and place for when we should know your character’s history.
Try not to lay it all down at once. Reveal bits and pieces from your character’s past to make your audience more invested in learning the whole truth.
2. Make Them Active
There’s no point in designating a character as your main protagonist if they’re not going to drive the story forward.
Every main protagonist should make active choices. A character who only acts when the plot calls for it is a reactive or passive character. This kind of character has a place, but they’re usually no one’s favourite.
If you make a passive character, don’t let them be the main protagonist. Your audience will grow annoyed with their indecisive nature and resent them.
An example of an active character is someone who travels to a cafe, orders a drink and sits down to drink it. They chose to go somewhere and do something all of their own. Their life is in their own hands.
Someone who received a phone call from their girlfriend to be at a certain place and then travels to that place is passive. They didn’t decide to go anywhere on their own. Any decision they make after that is just reacting to an event that already occurred.
Active characters are more popular than reactive ones because they’re the ones who get out there and do all the fun stuff. There’s nothing fun about watching a character mope around and cry about all the events they’ve been swept up in. There are far more interesting ways to have a character process grief, so it usually shouldn’t come to that.
When in doubt, force your characters to make impactful decisions. If those decisions have consequences, feel free to explore that. It could be fun.
3. Give Them Goals
All of your characters are involved in the plot for a reason. They all have a purpose, a goal to achieve that contributes to the story. Most of their initial actions are driven by the thought of achieving those goals.
That’s what it means to have a character who desires something. And if your character is integral to the plot, then they have to want something. A character without a desire is automatically passive, and they usually aren’t compelling.
When a character really wants something, they’ll do anything to get it. Even if it means getting involved in whatever crazy adventures that your plot includes.
If someone wants a magical artifact, and they bump into a group that’s looking for it, they’ll either join them or oppose them. Either way, they’re acting purely on how bad they want that MacGuffin.
If said character bonds with the group, they may later realize that they no longer desire the MacGuffin. All they want is to have a cool group of friends, so their desire changes. That’s character growth.
Character growth is intrinsically linked to character desires. A positive character arc involves a character realizing that what they want isn’t what they need, and changing for the better because of it.
Your character’s desires may be the most important thing about them. They influence your character’s story, their growth, their relationships, and maybe even their likes and dislikes. Whatever it is that they desire, make sure that it counts for something.
4. Let Them Be Vulnerable
Making a character vulnerable is the easiest way to make them relatable.
When you hear “vulnerable,” you may imagine your character slipping up on the battlefield and narrowly avoiding a sword to the ribs. That…works for certain characters, but it’s not what I’m talking about.
When I imagine a vulnerable character, I think of someone who’s capable of being hurt by words and actions. Someone with insecurities. They’ll probably work hard to deny this and put up walls to prevent it from happening. They might also accept it and admit that they’re sensitive, but unless it happens due to a character arc, that’s the less interesting way to go about it.
It’s one thing to have a protagonist who’s vulnerable, but to have a vulnerable antagonist? That could lead to some interesting moments.
Antagonists are inherently interesting characters. They oppose the protagonists, and they’re usually evil. They should be making some of the most active decisions in the story.
An antagonist with actual thoughts, emotions, and insecurities makes it clear that they eat and breathe just like the protagonists, and it can lead to instances of relatability where your fans least expect it. Even if they don’t emphasize with your antagonist (and they probably shouldn’t), they can understand what they’re trying to do and why.
Take Thanos from the Marvel movies. Before he became a meme, he was popular because he’s essentially the protagonist of Infinity War. Yeah, he’s evil, but he also grieves the loss of a family member, has actual conversations with the good guys, and truly believes that what he’s doing is the right thing. He’s shown that he’s vulnerable, and it makes him more interesting.
Vulnerability is also linked to a character’s weakness or flaw. If you want them to be vulnerable, just give them a taste of their worst fear and write how they’d react. It’s a good way to break your character down and build them back up again.
An interesting character has at least one of four things:
- A defining backstory.
- An active mindset.
- Something they desire above all else.
- Moments of vulnerability and weakness.
They don’t necessarily need all four, but it wouldn’t hurt. There’s also a lot more than just four things that could get your audience interested in your characters. If you love them, you need to show your audience what there is to love. If it’s written well enough, it’ll make them feel the same way.
Interesting characters are extremely important for any story. Not all stories have them, but they improve the ones that do. In a world where it’s hard to come up with a truly original plot, rely on your characters to help yours stand out.