Now, I’m not talking about how to build your own character, that comes with time and experience and running the gamut of being a writer. (Character seriously clings to you once you dig deep into writing.) But how do you build a fictional character who comes alive off the page and lives on in the hearts of your readers long after they have closed your book?
Good question. Especially since a character can make or break your novel.
How to Build a Memorable Character
The biggest thing is to create a character who is multidimensional. And by multidimensional it means they need personality. Quirks. Hobbies. Hot buttons. A past. Inner hurts. Goals. They aren’t static, and they are also always changing. In fact, they should change (the main character, anyway) throughout the course of your story. Something should happen that makes them a different person in the end. You know the expression you can’t go back? Well, your characters can’t go back to the way they were at the beginning of the story because they’ve changed. Something happened in the process of their journey and they are now different, stronger, and able to do what it takes to succeed in their story’s goal. (The person they were at the beginning of the story can’t accomplish their goal based on who they are at that point. There are obstacles in their way that they have to grow through/over. The person they are at the end of the story is able to reach that goal because they have changed and become capable.)
Questions to Ask Your Characters
Beyond them changing, they need to have some characteristics like mentioned previously–flaws, strengths, and weaknesses. Some writers like to interview their character (their character tells them about themselves) before they start writing while others fill out a form to help them find out who this character is. They may know the dilemma the character has to solve and their checklists help them put the best character in that position. In other words, what sort of character will be forced to grow and change throughout the story in order to accomplish the end goal?
For example, have you ever watched the movie Romancing the Stone? The main character is a softie romance writer who dreams of adventure but lives alone in her safe cocoon of an apartment with her cat. Her sister is kidnapped by very BAD guys and she is forced on a journey to save her sister. Only she can do it (nobody else can go in her place) and she is the LEAST likely character to succeed in the task. But she does–and she is forced to change along the way in order to do so. And because she is such a softie chicken it makes for a really great story because she is not the expected hero. The juxtapositions she finds herself in are perfect entertainment.
So, let’s get to things you can ask your characters in order to get to know they better. (Note: The more you know about your character the more small details you can slip onto the page which will round them out and make them feel fully developed, real, and therefore believable by your readers. And don’t worry, you don’t have to slip everything you know about them in, but knowing some of these things can affect your character’s values and belief systems which in turn affects the way they approach others, problems, and even how they speak):
- What is your goal? (What are they reaching towards? It could be something noble like money, success, love, or prestige. Readers like that. 🙂 )
- What/Who stands in your way? (Why can’t you reach your goal from where you are standing? What do you need in order to get there?)
- What do you do for a living? Do you like it? Are you good at it?
- What is your secret dream?
- What does your home look like? Where do you live?
- What is your education?
- What are you secretly embarrassed by?
- What are your hobbies?
- What was your family like growing up? Do you have siblings?
- What is your biggest fear?
- What do you avoid more than anything else in the world?
- What is your best strength?
- What do people like about you?
- What are you most proud of?
- What event changed you/your life the most?
- What do you wish you could do?
- What are your talents?
- How do you react to adversity?
- What music do you like?
- Who do you have a crush on?
- What is your religion?
- What do you believe matters?
- What is your favourite expression?
What to Do With Character Info
Once you know some of these things about your character, you can put them in your story and even have them working for or against your character. (Maybe they are a sociologist doing a participant study on homelessness, but their use of language and word choices and finicky hygiene habits make them stick out as an imposter and so the people the character needs to get close to end up not trusting them–their own habits, etc., get in the way of their goal.)
As well, having fully developed characters means they will change–like real people do–when faced with adversity and obstacles. They will adapt and by knowing them (as their creator) we can ensure they do this in a realistic way. And don’t be surprised if their goal changes or if they want the same goal, but for different reasons. That is good! It is a mark of them growing and changing like a fabulous character should. For example, my main character, Mandy, in my current project, Whiskey and Gumdrops, starts out thinking she wants and needs independence, but in the end she realizes she needs the comfort and support of others and by allowing them to help her it doesn’t necessarily mean she isn’t independent. So she learns to accept help in order to get what she wants and needs. Same goal–independence, but learns accepting help is okay too.
How about you? Do you ask your characters questions? Do you consciously think about who your character is when you write?
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