Every element to a story is important, but characters are vital because of their connection to the reader. You can have the most beautiful, compelling plot, but if your characters are weak, your readers will know it (and vice versa). The easiest, most simple way to connect to your readers to the story is through your characters.
Maybe it’s because I know that they’re so important that I’ve been having trouble creating new ones. See, I have been writing a novel with Rachelle Clifford for many years. And at this point, we are almost finished. Our characters have gone through two to three major rewrites (as has the plot itself). They are fleshed out, multifaceted, almost completely different from when we first created them, and I love them.
Now I approach a new story and expect my characters to be that way automatically. I forget that it takes time, and I even forget what not to do. For those of you that may be struggling with creating a new character, maybe these warnings will help pinpoint the problems you’re having. Thinking about them has certainly helped me.
Beware of creating characters that are your age. I have found myself doing this all my life. It’s very easy to do unintentionally; as a writer, you need to connect with your character, and a simple way to do that is to plop your character into your shoes, your way of life, your time of life. But this can limit your character and your story. What if the story you want to tell works better if your character is older than you? Or younger? Maybe you don’t struggle with this, but if you do, I want to free you from this. There are other ways to connect with your character. If your character is the same age as you then just take a second to make it a conscious decision and not just one you’re making because it’s easy.
Beware of creating unlikeable characters. If you don’t like your protagonist from the very beginning, then chances are neither will your readers. Your character needs to have something redeemable about them, something that connects your readers to them. The best characters are those you love at every stage: before they change, during, and after. So if you find yourself pining for the day you can write your character once they’ve changed, you need to rethink the beginning of the character. You need to find what it is that’s likeable about them now.
Beware of creating characters and defining them solely by their personality gimmicks. So, you decide to go with the small but spunky redhead girl for a character. If she is always spunky, if she is spunky so much that she becomes defined by it, that she always makes the same decision out of spunkiness, then you have a problem. In order to have a multifaceted character, you cannot let the personality gimmick become the character. Let your characters deepen. Let them change. No one is *insert personality gimmick here* all the time.
Beware of creating characters with too many abilities. This is a problem I especially see in younger writers. Here’s how it looks in science fiction and fantasy: my character has ice powers plus fire plus water and earth and air, and she can teleport and learns to absorb other people’s powers plus plus plus. And here’s how it looks everywhere else: My character knows karate and how to pick locks and can shoot any and every gun, and she speaks 50 languages, including dead ones, plus she can cook and sew and cleans her house every week no matter what. Sounds ridiculous written out like that, right? But it’s cool. Why can’t your character have all the abilities? A simple answer: conflict.
If your protagonist becomes a god, you essentially strip the need for conflict from the story. And a story is conflict. With a god who can do all the things, there should be no problem taking out the conflict in chapter one, and then you have no story. Worse is when you keep writing your god as if they’re a human struggling against conflict. Instead of solving the problem in chapter one, you drag it out to the end of the book, and suddenly your god looks like an idiot for allowing it to progress that far. Your readers are sitting there wondering why your god didn’t use this ability in chapter three or that ability in chapter ten. And it disconnects them.
The conflict your character is struggling against has to be greater than their abilities, or we’re following the wrong protagonist. This is why antagonists are always stronger or smarter (or both) than the protagonist. They have to be a threat. And if your protagonist is a god, then you’re left with the problem of creating an antagonist who’s stronger; you don’t have much room to work with to escalate a god.
Trust me, a well-placed weakness can develop your character more than one hundred skills.
Beware of not following through on a character’s culture or background. Characters are intimately bound to the world they live in and the culture they were brought up in. As the author you owe it to your readers to think of all the implications of the world and how it affects your character and their ability to change. This is the best way to make your character really come alive for your readers. If your character was raised as a monk and taught not to kill, and he’s suddenly thrown into a war where the only end is death, then as an author you need to understand that he can’t so easily cast his upbringing aside and start killing everyone. That character is linked to the monks’ way of life. Breaking that thinking should cause a struggle, and that struggle, that change, cannot come easily. Don’t be lazy. Let that struggle take place, let it take a good long while, and see how your character handles these kinds of burdens.
Beware of creating characters just like you. This by far has been my biggest struggle with every new story I think about. The main characters end up being watered down versions of me as a whole or an extreme version of just one part of me, instead of themselves. It’s easy to do because it’s easiest to empathize with someone like you. But here’s the thing: they can’t be me. I give them other hobbies or abilities or even give them magic and I strip away my writing, my humor, my friends. And I’m left with a flat character, a shadow of me and nothing like what they could be. Don’t fall trap to this like I have. There will always be pieces of you in every character you write, but let your characters be something different. If you’re going to write you, then you should write nonfiction, because you’re far more interesting without a mask.
Really take these warnings to heart from someone who has been tempted by or actually done all of them. Readers connect with characters, so your characters, especially your protagonists, have to be strong. I hope to talk more about creating characters in the future and offer useful suggestions on what to do as opposed to what not to do like I did here. I am still on the journey myself to creating new characters that can carry a story, and I hope to share that journey with you.
Best of luck, as always.
By Tracy Buckler