I think it would be pretty accurate to say characters can make or break a good book. I’m one of those people that will muscle through a book if I like nothing else but the main character. Characters are what connect us to the story, they’re what makes the world and events matter to us. They can influence our perspective in the story, because we usually want to root for them. But creating them right is an art. Not a complicated art, if you don’t over-think it, but an art all the same. So here are my 5 tips to creating well rounded characters
Figure out your angle
Let’s start off with the main character, or the POV character you’re using at the moment. Imagine that character is a camera. You only see what they can see. Our view as the reader is limited by their perspective. If their view it blocked, so is ours. If the “lens” is tinted, so is our view of the world. If the lens is foggy, we can only see things vaguely. Your character and their experiences can drastically change the story, so it’s always good to make sure that the character you’ve chosen fits the angle of the story you’re going for.
For example, say you’re writing about a character in a futuristic dystopian setting. For the purposes of our examples for today, we’re going to name her Louise. Now in this imaginary story setting, let’s imagine Louise has, for example, trust issues. Then when she finds out that the government has been using her this whole time, and her colleagues are actually her enemies, she might be better prepared to take them all down when they try to abduct her. She’s the kind of person to check all the exits before she enters a building, notice if someone might be carrying fire arms, jumps when someone’s hand flinches. So when her enemies try to take her, she’s only fazed for a moment before she realizes she has to act, and does so immediately.
Now take the same scenario, but imagine Louise is very trusting. She’s the type to leave her car unlocked all the time by accident, makes lots of friends in any work environment, and couldn’t fathom the idea that any of the people she works with could ever betray her trust. When the same events happen to her, sorry to say, Louise is a lot more likely to be captured when her friends turn on her. Her reflexes aren’t as quick to react, and even if she wanted to, she’d have more trouble making the huge leap from asking one of her friends to hang out this Friday to deciding whether or not to take a shot at those same people.
See how that simple decision creates two completely different story arcs?
Neither story is better or worse than the other! It just depends on the story you want to tell. Do you want your readers to trust Louise’s colleagues? Maybe Trusting Louise is the better way to go. But if you want your readers to be skeptical of everyone and everything, Skeptic Louise is probably the better option.
The plot doesn’t have to change if you don’t want it to, either. If you still want Trusting Louise to make it out, you might have to create a second character to be her ally in that particular situation. Or if you want Skeptic Louise to get captured, you might have to create someone smart enough out-think her quick reflexes. But know that different personalities tell different stories, and you should let it happen! It’s more fun and interactive for the reader when the character seems to have a command of their situation and the things that happen in their world.
Even if “command” means they’re more likely to mess up and get themselves in trouble.
Ask your character questions
So let’s go with Louise again.
I’m going to go with Trusting Louise, alright? So I need to know more about how she’d react in different situations! I’m going to add another trait to Trusting Louise, so now she’s lazy. Lazy, Trusting Louise.
(Y’all had better watch me, before this character tries to make itself into a story for real 🤣)
Lazy, Trusting Louise has been kidnapped, and she’s waiting around in her cell for the character she doesn’t know is coming to bust her out. This is all fine and all, but what does Lazy, Trusting Louise do when she’s not being kidnapped and waiting for rebels? It might help us understand how she’ll react when the rebels come!
So ask yourself (or pretend you are to Louise) questions! What does her character do on a regular basis? Does she like sports? Does she play one? Watch it on TV? Does she have any hobbies? Art? Poetry? Playing music? And don’t just answer these questions like you would a quiz, actually give your character a voice to answer. There are several methods you can use to do this.
One is doing an interview with your own character! Ask questions that would help you figure out who they are as a person, and try to envision how they answer. Pretend you’re in the same room, and you can include actions, which also helps portray character! (you may feel weird doing this, but it seriously works, so if you can push through it, it’s totally worth it!) For example:
Me: Hello, Louise, how are you today?
Louise: *shrugs* Alright, I guess. (<— remember, we added Lazy, so this helps portray indifference already!)
Me: That’s good. So how did you come to work for the government?
Louise: Well, I like helping people, and working in the Universal Protections Unit lets me do that. (I made this up for this world. Imagine that exists)
Me: Wow, so do you get along with your co-workers?
Louise: Ah, yeah they’re great. I’m going out to grab a pizza with a couple of them this weekend. (<— Notice her casual dialogue,and we’re also bringing out that trusting side of her as well. Skeptic Louise wouldn’t answer like this at all!)
Me: Cool, so let’s talk about your hobbies. Do you like sports?
Louise: Heck no, I hate sports. I like watching them. I did the physical training necessary to get into this unit, but that was because I had to, not because I like it.
Me: So what sports do you like to watch?
Louise: Baseball. My dad got me into it when I was young. *chuckles* I still have the trading cards he used to buy me.
Me: That’s sweet. Speaking of sweets, what’s your favorite food?
Louise: All the worst stuff, pizza, hamburgers, nachos. Starting work for the universal protective unit has been hard. *groans*
Me: So why join if you don’t like working out and can’t eat all of your favorite foods?
Louise: *shrugs* I don’t know, I guess I really like the idea of protecting those that need it. My dad was a cop, and he died on the job because he was protecting people. And I figure the best way to honor his memory is to follow in his footsteps.
Look at how much we learned about Louise right there! Not only have we learned that she loves junk food, hates working out, and loves watching baseball with her dad, but we’ve also learned what drives her to do what she does, which is one of the biggest parts of a character, is their drive. A character’s motives are powerful. They can make us want with them, make us root for them, make us understand them. Understanding a character’s drive in an invaluable tool in writing. Use it wisely!
Which brings me to my second method of getting into a character’s head.
Sometimes it’s a struggle coming up with questions to ask your character and seeing how they’ll answer. For one, if you’re the one coming up with the questions, you already know the answer ahead of time. Which is why it’s great to have all those questions already made up by someone else!
This is a bit of shameless self-promo, but technically it’s Katerina King’s game, I’m just the co-host 😉
#CharacterChaos is a hashtag game on Twitter where you get daily questions to ask your character (or characters) and you answer in their voice! The game already has lots of players, so you can even use your character and interact with others, giving you all kinds of situations for your character to react to and allowing you to flex your creative muscles every time you respond! Check out @_KingKaterina on Twitter for more information.
Give your character limitations
No one really thinks it’s realistic for one character to be capable of everything. Even the best of personality traits have their limitations, and remembering those limits make them more real to the reader, and raises the stakes in the story!
Skeptic Louise may be able to escape her treacherous comrades when they try to overtake her, but now she’s all alone, and isn’t likely to accept help, even when it’s genuine. Which could end her up in even more trouble when she tries to constantly do things solo.
Trusting Louise may get captured because she lets her guard down too often, but that also means she’s more likely to accept help from the rebels when they come to rescue her!
As in exercise, try to think of each positive trait you give your character, now imagine how that can be a flaw. Someone who’s cheery all the time could potentially have problems sobering up in serious situations. Or may not be able to handle a lot of devastating things happening all at once. Someone who’s physically strong may have a lot of muscle, but may not be the best runner with all that heavy muscle.
Now think of a flaw your character has. Lazy, Trusting Louise may be lazy, but that also means she knows how to get things done without expending too much energy, which is essential in survival situations. Someone who’s stingy is also good at saving money, which would come in handy if they lose their job!
Thinking of these checks and balances are what makes a well-rounded character three-dimensional and real. Take some time to contemplate it!
Give your character a goal, even simple ones
As I said, a character’s motives are powerful. And while the story may be driven by one motive in particular, utilizing little goals are equally as powerful, and are what create page-turners as we need to know if the character ever got it!
Think of Pokemon. Ash Ketchum obviously wants to be the best. That no one ever was. To catch them is his real—
Ahem. You know the rest.
Anyway, but that’s not happening any time soon. The show has been going on for I don’t know how many years, but kids (and possibly adults) are still watching. Why? Because Ash wants a bunch of other stuff too! He wants to win at individual gyms. He wants to be there for his friends. He wants to look out for pokemon everywhere. These smaller goals drive us to come back every time to ensure that he gets it!
So give your character little goals that are easier to complete in a short amount of time. It can be as simple as Louise being at the gym, and wanting a bottle of water because she forgot hers and her wallet at home. Now we’re thinking about that water bottle the whole time she’s there until she gets it. So we’re engaged with her workoutv— and her thirst — the whole time until she gets home and drinks some water. And we feel her relief along with her, too.
Or give your character a bigger goal, like going out to the country to see family, something that can happen in just a few chapters. But now we have to read ALL those chapters just to reach that point. And if we’re reminded of how much this character really wants to go see family, we’ll ache with them too, and celebrate when she finally comes home. These little goals gives us life until we get the reward of the ultimate goal at the end of the book.
Make your character dislike things
This is a weird trick, but one that works every time for me. I talked about how helpful it is to give your character limits. Well, the things that the character doesn’t like are also limits, in a way. They’re quirks that make the character interesting, and it can sometimes be funny how they’ll avoid certain things because they don’t like it.
For example, if Louise wasn’t ambushed and was able to go to pizza with her friends, let’s say she hates mushrooms, and they got a deluxe pizza. It’s a little quirk you can add to her if she’s picking them out of the pizza while they talk (and a great way to break up long bits of dialogue with action, in that case). It gives us little details we know about her, like we would a friend. Things we’d only know by knowing her closely.
Or imagine she’s brave in every situation, except when a dog is present, which is when she freaks out. And if you remember these little things through out the story, just seeing mushrooms or a dog come up, we automatically go, “Oh, Louise is gonna hate that.”
How rewarding is it when your readers know her that well? And it’s rewarding for the readers too!
Just try it, you’ll be surprised how much the character comes easier when they’re given a list of things they don’t like.
So that’s it for today, I hope you enjoyed my tips for fleshing out a character. They’re weird tricks I’ve picked up that sounds crazy at first, but believe me, you’ll be surprised.
Catch you later!