If you love to write fiction—be it short stories, novellas, or novels—you need to people your tales with characters. And, if you want readers to flock to your stories, these paper people need to be believable and interesting. So how does a new writer learn to develop characters that rise above flat Dick & Jane figures?
Here are five techniques to get you started. If you use all of these in your storytelling you’ll move your fiction above and beyond the realm of tired clichés.
Make them talk. In real life, people interact by speaking to one another. Characters who live in their own world, rarely interacting with others—you may call them loners—can come across as uninteresting, one-dimensional navel-gazers. Try putting them into situations where they’re forced into conversation with others. Introspection is fine, but when you let characters voice their desires, goals, intent, fears or even threaten each other…they seem so much more real.
Make them move. Today’s fiction is all about creating scenes that readers can visualize. We’ve been trained by the media. We go to the movies, watch TV, spend hours viewing videos on our computers or phones. We expect visual entertainment. If you don’t make your characters run, walk, gesture, eat, throw things, make love and do hundreds of other things to create visual images in the reader’s mind, you’ll have a very small audience for your stories. We need to “see” a story to become engaged in it.
Give them a friend (or enemy). When we observe a person who is acting as if they are in love, worried about another person, being kind to a stranger, or fearful of someone—we know what that feels like. Emotions are universal. We identify with a character through the feelings this person experiences towards others. And when we identify with a fictional character, we become curious and want to find out what happens to them in their story, so we keep turning pages.
Give them a history. Real people don’t just appear out of nowhere on a street, in a house, or at a place of work. They have a past, and their past determines their personality and how they react to situations. Try “interviewing” each of your main characters. Ask them where they grew up. Did they come from a warm, close family…or a troubled childhood? Was religion a part of their upbringing? What did they want to be when they grew up…and what did they actually become? Ask them anything you like. If you write the questions and answers as an exercise, similar to the format of a magazine interview, you’ll gather valuable information that will bring your people to life. Then use what you’ve learned about them to write your story.
Give them a challenge. A hard one. Don’t leave your characters to idly muse over their lives, their troubles. Force them to act. In real life, we are fascinated with people who tackle their problems with gusto. We love stories about the immigrant who came to this country with nothing and built a successful life. We love stories about the “little guy” who, against all odds, beat out the powerful corporate or government figure. Because they act when faced with a challenge, we believe they exist.
Above all, have fun with your characters. If they entertain you, you can be sure they’ll also entertain your readers.
Want more tips to bump up your fiction? You might enjoy the book inspired by courses Kathryn teaches for The Writer’s Center and Smithsonian Associates programs in Washington, DC. You can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Extreme-Novelist-No-Time—Write-Drafting/dp/0692420835/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1471356664&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Extreme+Novelist