I discussed on my personal blog the difference between a Plot-First writer and a Character-First writer. All stories need both a good plot and an interesting character. You can have the most interesting and exciting plot in the world, but if no one cares about your character, then your book is going to be flat. In the same way, you can have a really deep, interesting, compelling character, but if they never do anything, the story is going to be bland.
Most writers have a tendency to lean one way or the other, being stronger in either plot development or character development. Sometimes it’s fairly balanced, but more often than not, whichever direction is your first instinct is where your strength is, and you’ll have to work extra hard to strengthen the other side.
As I said, I’m a plot-first writer. The characters are secondary to me, which means I have to put far more effort into making them interesting and compelling than I put into plot. Plot comes much more naturally to me, and I am much better at seeing plot holes and strengthening those areas than I am with character development.
And, as such, I have come up with some tricks and tools that I use to flesh out my characters and give them more personality.
There are countless books that cover the subject of character development, and endless tools, like personality tests and graphs for physical traits and charts of backstory and so on that you can use to help develop your character, and those are all useful. There is certainly a time and a place for them, and using them can help you stay organized and consistent as well as point out things you may be missing. But as a plot-first writer who also tends to be a seat-of-the-pants writer, I find a lot of those types of things tedious and a waste of time.
So this series is more of a cheat-sheet, a list of ideas to help round out characters without investing too much time in something that isn’t actual writing.
First of all, your character must be relatable.
This means that your reader has to connect with your character in some way. Even anti-heroes and villains need to have some level of humanity, but main characters especially need to be relatable. You have to give your reader some reason to care about what happens to him or her, to want him or her to succeed.
Some characters are characters we love to hate. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, is a spoiled, petulant diva. She’s conniving and devious at every turn, and frequently makes things worse in an effort to get her own way. Yet even when you want to strangle her, you can at least understand why she did what she did. In all her viciousness, she’s still very human, pushing herself as hard as she pushes everyone else and taking care of those under her protection even as she vies for more.
A character that is too perfect, like Snow White, is just irritating. And a character who is too flawed is just a jerk.
Many times, your main character is someone your reader will admire. There’s a reason they’re referred to as the “hero” and “heroine” of a story. Heroes are handsome and strong and intelligent and cunning and skilled and so on. Heroines are beautiful and witty and sexy and clever and agile and so forth.
But Snow White and Prince Charming are boring. If your characters have only good qualities, then readers won’t empathize with them as much.
To make your character relatable, give them human flaws and desires. You can use anything from pimples and spare tires, to stuttering whenever they try to talk to someone of the opposite sex, to anger management issues, to unhindered ambition–balance your character’s strengths with something that embodies the human experience. Something that makes them feel awkward and inferior, something about which they’re self-conscious, or that someone else is annoyed by.
Think of the rule that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It works in physics and in character development.
Dr. House is a brilliant diagnostician. But he’s also an arrogant jerk who knows nothing about people.
Adrian Monk is a brilliant detective with a highly honed set of observational skills. But he’s also debilitatingly OCD.
Emma Swan is a sword-wielding, evil-fighting hero, but the very thing that defines her also leads her to rely only on herself and push away the relationships that help her.
Interesting fact: When Superman was first created, he did not have a weakness for Kryptonite. He beat all the bad guys and never had any trouble. The writers quickly realized that people soon tired of a hero who had no weaknesses. The addition of Kryptonite into the storyline introduced the possibility of real danger and harm. Without it, Superman is limitless. But because Kryptonite exists, people relate to him, even in all his superpowers.
The possibility of things going badly makes the reader want for the character to succeed. The fact that there’s a flaw, a chance things could go very wrong, is what makes readers invest emotionally in a character and root for his or her success.
So, when you’re developing your character, whatever strengths and powers you give him or her, give him an equal or corresponding flaw to balance it out.