Creating captivating characters
When you see a movie, what sticks with you most: the characters or the plot? Probably the characters. And that’s true for books, too. The reason is we like to live vicariously through others. We like to see — and feel — what happens to the characters we come to know and identify with.
In a way, they become a part of us as we tag along on their journeys. We watch them change and grow during the course of a story. And by the end, after all the problems have (hopefully) been resolved, sometimes we’ve learned more about ourselves and the world around us.
What makes an unforgettable character? Ask yourself this question during the entire process of creating one. Because you want your characters to be as realistic as possible, it's important to imagine them as actual people. This doesn’t mean you have to compare them to individuals you know, but it does mean you have to give them enough imperfections that they’ll feel authentic.
No one wants to read about someone perfect. Not only is there no such thing, but you run the risk of boring your readers. The goal is to keep them interested for the duration — not put them to sleep after the first few pages.
As with the writing itself, there are no secret formulas for making characters come alive. What works for some authors might not work for others. Some rely on photos from magazines to get ideas, while others like to observe people in public. Whichever method you choose, remember that your story is yours alone. Only you can write it. This means the characters have to be your own, too.
Sometimes choosing a name for a character, especially one who is significant to the story, is difficult. Like details about his or her life, the possibilities are endless. If you’re stuck, try consulting a website devoted to baby names. Or, if you’re the old-fashioned type (like me) and prefer actual books, use a baby-name book or telephone directory.
When it comes to filling in details, I recommend concentrating on the basics first. These include height, weight, and eye color. Personality traits and quirks can be added later. Focusing on too much detail all at once can overwhelm you and take away from the actual writing.
As you go about making revisions to your story, you’ll find the characters become more complex. Something might jump out at you that never did before. This is what makes writing so exciting.
Like anything relevant to fiction, the key to creating interesting, believable characters is to have fun. Let them take you wherever the story leads. It's an adventure for both you and your readers.
Barbara Irvin has written for literary journals and newspapers. She studied freelance writing at Penn Foster Career School and is currently working on a novel. Her column appears monthly in the Independent.