Creating Unforgettable Characters

NaNo is getting real, folks. I know you feel it. As someone in grad school, I can honestly say I feel your pain. You’ve got to do whatever it is you do during the day and then get up early or stay up late to fulfill your writing (or studying, in my case) obligations. For example, I’m supposed to be reading Valuation: The Art and Science of Corporate Investment Decisions, a tome as incomprehensible to me as it is perhaps challenging for you to develop characters that leap off the page. I confess, I’ve been cheating on my assigned reading with some luscious flirts that have so much to offer in terms of character. Fates and Furies is one, a new novel that uses perspective to play with the very idea of character formation and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Tuesday Nights in 1980 is driven by stunning language, but the characters are so well drawn, perhaps none more so than the city of New York itself, which serves as both setting and protagonist. And then there’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, where Rick Riordan has effortlessly created complete and compelling humans and supernaturals whose sentences you feel you could finish. Not in a bad way, in the best way—they’re friends, they’re familiars. Just as I’ll eventually learn finance, you can master the art of shaping terrific characters that will haunt your readers’ dreams. Here are some tips:

1. Read the books in the paragraph above, read some Roald Dahl and Flannery O’Connor, read exhaustively, and read closely. Take notes on how much physical detail each author gives you. Pay attention to what the characters express in dialogue, and what they don’t. If you become drawn to a character or repelled by one, notice why. What did the author do to pull you in and make you care? When did the character stop being a character and become real? Characters that elicit strong emotions in either direction are usually well crafted while the badly written ones are easily forgotten or dismissed (read: protagonist of Grisham’s most recent effort).

2. Giving your character a weird name, an esoteric appearance, or manufactured dialect is not enough to make him compelling. Frodo, the hobbit, is a good example. Hobbits have special physical characteristics and a culture that makes them distinct and contributes to some fabulous world-building. But Frodo is not an exceptional character because he has large hairy feet or lives in the Shire. Rather, it’s because of his vulnerabilities and temptations, his unleashed curiosity, his courage in the face of adversity, and his enduring love for his comrades.

3. Paper is flat; characters shouldn’t be. Take Darth Vader, one of the great evil overlords and an icon of the twentieth century. But is he uniformly evil? Nope. In the end, he sacrificed himself for his son! That act makes him infinitely more interesting as a character and gives him complexity and depth. Would President Snow be as creepy if he didn’t also love his roses and dote on his granddaughter? Would anyone keep reading if Olive Kitteridge were always hateful and spiteful and always said the wrong thing?

4. Know everything about your character and then keep 95 percent of it out of your book. I want you to know who they’d vote for in 2016, that salt & vinegar chips are their favorite, the thing that happened when they were eight that still haunts them. I want you to know every detail so that in every conversation and with every plot point you’re ensuring authenticity and congruence. Your readers won’t need to know any of these details. If you must make their whole lives public, write separate stories involving your side characters just to get your head around them and then publish them as “outtakes” on the web. It will make your readers and your social media manager happy.

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