Whether the protagonist, main character, hero, antagonist, villain, supporting character — animate or inanimate — an author needs to know the players traipsing through their story. The more known, the more realistic that player becomes to the audience and come to have an emotional attachment. To that end, the author has to do some groundwork before starting the story. Over time, I have reviewed many, many suggested approaches (and continue to do so). The result is borrowing and melding those suggestions into something that works for this author; however, whatever works for you is probably the right one as long as you have as a goal believeability and having them remembered.
This is offered as one of the many approaches to creating a player. While some factors may depend on their role in the story, there are three things that every character should have. As you work through the list, have in mind the photos at the end of this article, and about made each contribute to the story and stand out as an individual.
What Makes A Strong Character?
1. A Goal
The character’s goal is the one thing that they are trying to achieve, believing that attaining that goal will bring them success and happiness. In reality, sometimes what they think they want and what they actually need will be different. Therefore, a character needs a strong goal that will drive them to take steps to attain it. If should someone or something gets in the way, they will take action to seek a way to overcome that obstacle. That’s life and that paves the way for a strong plot.
2. A Motivation
Motivation is the why behind the goal, the reason the character takes action, so it’s important to give the character strong motivations as well as strong goals for two main reasons.
A) Motivations reveal who your characters really are deep down so that the reader sees that they are more than just a role to be fulfilled, that they are indeed real people.
B) Giving each character very different motivations will help the reader identify which side of the fence they are on—protagonist or antagonist.
3. A Purpose
Without a purpose, a character will seem pointless. Consider what the character adds to the story. Do they create conflict or undergo emotional development?
4. A Personality
Having strong goals and motivations can make a character interesting, but how they respond to situations and interact with other characters is determined by their personality—traits, if you will. And in this regard, don’t be stingy, but be careful to not overload their apple cart. Choose a few traits and decide what triggers them to be displayed.
Fear. Fear is a universal emotion that can lead to insecurity, impatience, and conflict, making fear a perfect emotion to hook readers and drive the plot forward. To escape a fearful situation or overcome it requires action.
Flaws. Perfection is boring. Imperfection makes us an individual; however, make your character multi-dimensional. If your character has a physical disability or poor situation, give a way of handling it. Cheerful outside, crying inside; flash anger, fierce determination to overcome.
History. The past shapes who we become, that affects present-day decisions. While writing a detailed history is best for you, all of this backstory doesn’t need to be laid out for the reader, just meaningful snippets here and there to explain the why of their actions.
Present story. This is the quest or journey that will shape and grow your character.,
Personality. A character should be complex (we are). Give them contradictory traits while avoiding clichés at all costs.
Interests. A character with passion, even if your readers hate it, generates interest.
Quirk. Everyone has a strange habits and strange is just as interesting as passionate. A quirk helps them stand out from the crowd.
Name. This may sound like, “duh,” but a name can play a number of supportive roles. It might be a name with a purpose, showcase a time period, foreshadow actions, or hint at their interests.
Desire. Desires are powerful motivators. Some desires may lead your character to accomplish their goal while others may lead your character astray.
Love. How can your readers love a character that loves no one? They need to have love for at least one person. Someone who might be provide a steadying hand, encouragement, who needs protection. Love is not all hugs and cuddles. It is a deep, emotional attachment that humans crave and need.
Complex. This is an amalgamation of many of the things in this discussion that gives depth to a character‘s personality and motivations. Avoid a laundry list and reveal each facet one by one to explain the why they responded in a particular situation.
Unique. Average is boring. Help your character to stand out from the rest by giving them a unique goal, motivation, or trait.
Intelligent. A character needs to stand up to challenges using their intelligence and intuition as a powerful force to succeed.
Relate-able. Readers should be able to relate to a character, a personality trait, situation, or motivation that they can connect with on a personal level.
Fail. A character needs to face setbacks, become discouraged, or overwhelmed, perhaps even fail outright. It‘s how they deal with failure that will makes the victory sweet and enduring to the reader.
Suffer. When a reader sees your character at their worst is when they can come to love them at their best. That means it is necessary to take your character through the fire to become a stronger person.
Sweat. With the exception of a few, most people have to pass through the “blood, sweat, and tears” phase to achieve their goal. If a goal is worthwhile, it’s necessary to work for it.
Gender. The character’s gender matters less than you would think, but consider it what you have in mind is the best choice. Consider everything your character will go through. Is that the gender that can realistically tell the story best? That said, writing the opposite sex can be a pitfall unless you are totally confident in understanding how they think.
Perspective. This relates to the importance of backstory. A person’s upbringing, religion, morality, beliefs, and social influences shapes how they “see” the world.
Type. Is your character introverted or extroverted? Shy or outgoing? Adventurous or content? Think about all of the many roles your character can play. Do they show their true self in public?
Language. How people speak depends on where and how they were raised. Does your character speak with a certain dialect or accent? Do they use slang words, trendy jargon, or proper grammar.
In Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clements wrote: “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”
Attitude. Attitude is deeply linked to perspective. The way in which they were raised and what they believe will dictate how their actions. Are they optimistic, pessimistic, or selfish, hateful, compassionate, respectful or disrespectful?
Happy place. Everyone has a place that they can go to in order to feel safe and secure, a place to find comfort and relax, a place where they can truly be themselves and recharge before the big finale. This is where the reader can see who your character is in their purest form.
Support. A character should not go through the tough situations you have in store along. They need others by their side to love, encourage, guide, offer a hand up.
Support. The character will go through some tough situations requiring others by their side. In the Dramatica model, there are eight characters in a story. It is possible that one character fills more than one of these roles.
- Protagonist: The traditional Protagonist is the driver of the story: the one who forces the action. We root for it and hope for its success.
- Antagonist: The Antagonist is the character directly opposed to the Protagonist. It represents the problem that must be solved or overcome for the Protagonist to succeed.
- Reason: This character makes its decisions and takes action on the basis of logic, never letting feelings get in the way of a rational course.
- Emotion: The Emotion character responds with its feelings without thinking, whether it is angry or kind, with disregard for practicality.
- Skeptic: Skeptic doubts everything — courses of action, sincerity, truth — whatever.
- Sidekick: The Sidekick is unfailing in its loyalty and support. The Sidekick is often aligned with the Protagonist though may also be attached to the Antagonist.
- Guardian: The Guardian is a teacher or helper who aids the Protagonist in its quest and offers a moral standard.
- Contagonist: The Contagonist hinders and deludes the Protagonist, tempting it to take the wrong course or approach.
Gut. Everyone has gut feelings and gut reactions. Get to know these for your character. Even if they don’t follow them, relating your character’s gut in the narrative can help you reveal more about your character, create tension and suspense, and foreshadow upcoming events.
Bane. This is a person or thing that ruins or spoils, causes misery or distress. This can bring your character to a breaking point, and how it is handled lets your reader see what they are made of.
Redemption. If have worked to make a character believable and “real” to your reader, the they are bound to make mistakes. They might harm or offend other people, either unintentionally or on purpose. Depending on their role, it might be necessary for them to find redemption and become likable again. How will they fix their mistakes?
Glory. A character should show growth during their journey, and hopefully become a better at who they are and what they do. Allowing them to glimpse this change and revel in it would be a nice reward.
Their story. At the end of the day, your character and reader should have been able to see who or what they were in the beginning. What happened to them. The mistakes they made and trials they faced, and how that was handled. What they did upon reaching their breaking point. What they realized, and how were they motivated to continue on. What their struggle looked like, and how they persevered and overcome challenges. Finally, who are they now because of it all.
A successful novel has characters that are remembered, whether loved or not, and not just one. By understanding what makes a character great, it is possible to create memorable characters (plural) that your readers will not soon forget. Look at the characters in these photos. Each and every one, (not just the main characters) had elements of what was just presented. They won’t soon be forgotten. That is your challenge, your goal.
Some of this information has been based on blogs of other writers, in particular Kristen Kieffer’s “She’s Novel.”