Characters are the core of any story, plain and simple. Readers love a book because of the people in it. Even if they don’t realize it.
Listen to people talk about their favorite books. “I love Stephanie Plum books. They’re so much fun.” “Harry Potter books are the best.” “Sherlock Holmes? Incredible.”
Sure, the action and settings are fun. But at the end of the day, it’s about taking a journey of challenge and growth as someone else and making new friends along the way. Our fascination with each other is part of being human.
Which means the key to attracting readers is creating interesting characters.
THE CHARACTER BASELINE
Most writers have heard of assigning a main character traits, right? Things like, intelligent, secretive, impulsive, generous.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact, there are important methods to making it work. These include having subtext, and opposing traits for built-in dilemmas.
But there are layers beneath that which really make a character come to life. Even better, these layers give you a lot of material for their story.
A COMMON CHARACTER CREATION MISTAKE
The first step in creating deeper characters is fundamental to great writing and a mistake most new writers make. They love their characters and don’t want to hurt them. As an add-on to this, they make their characters wonderful people who are very nice.
In life, I highly recommend choosing friends who land mostly in this category. In fiction, a character like this equals boring.
DIGGING DEEPER INTO YOUR CHARACTERS
Instead of playing nice, embrace that your job as a novelist is to challenge flawed characters and challenge them hard. This is how we, as writers, explore and mimic the nature of the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty.
To help with that important calling, give your main characters:
- Hidden Agendas
Even nice people have secrets. No person on this planet is all sunshine and unicorns. And that’s part of this layer. More specifically for the purpose of your project, they have secrets which impact the situations in their story.
These can be big secrets, like they’re a murderer; less dramatic as in they’ve quietly loved another character most of their lives; or even softer, like the young boy who eats the pan of brownies, and then lets his brother take the blame.
This layer is often connected to secrets, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, imagine a wife who has always wanted a child and a husband who does not. She’s made no secret of her desire, and her hidden agenda is to get pregnant.
But covert plans can also be big, like when the young hero of a fantasy novel fights to learn magic so she can take over the kingdom. They can be more localized like a teacher working behind the scenes to frame a coworker who wronged him.
The key to this, and all layers, is to brainstorm what each main character wants, and then ask yourself “What’s beneath that.”
Finding layers is always about digging deeper.
I’ve found that most writers understand giving a character wounds. This usually manifests as the protagonist having some past significant trauma, like abuse as a child, or PTSD from war.
Those experiences certainly qualify, as wounds must be traumatic to that individual. But they can also come from a broader playing field than these types of severe events. The key is that a character’s wound must add to, and support, the story you’re telling.
For example, a messy divorce may make it impossible for a character to trust. The death of a loved one could mean a character is now obsessed with control.
Failed dreams might have turned them bitter and vengeful. A limiting illnesses, even as common as severe allergies, could make them obsessed with a cure, afraid to leave their home, or hitchhiking to the desert to live off the land.
As you explore this layer, also ask yourself how other characters might exploit this wound. How will they use it to manipulate, defeat, or control?
What makes your character go ballistic? That’s the core of digging for an interesting trigger in your main characters.
Is it bullying? Not being trusted? Their wound? A phobia? A threat?
This layer, like the others, deserves to be explored deeply, as it conveys elements about who your character is and what makes them tick.
As you do so, also ask yourself how they respond when they’re triggered. Do they lie? Lose their temper? Withdraw?
CONTINUING THE PROCESS
Finally, as you investigate these deeper aspects of your main characters, allow your imagination to spin off other layers, such as their core hope and fear, wants and needs, or the face they show to the word versus the dominant emotion seething beneath.
In other words, dig, explore, and have fun. You’ll find when you’re done that you have a rich selection of interesting layers to explore as you challenge your characters on their journeys.
See you on the bestsellers list!
Information in this article is a reflection of the excellent content found in Hal Croasmun’s Binge Worthy TV Bootcamp, one of ScreenwritingU’s online classes.