Characters may be fictional, non-fictional or somewhere in between, but your audience wants them to seem as real as possible, worth caring about and believable.
As you show your writing to others, some people may have feedback that your character isn’t likeable. What does than even mean, and how do you do that?
Most of the time, the problem of likability has to do with identification. The more readers know about a character in depth, the more they can identify with him.
Then there’s the concept of character development. I have often heard people say, “My plots are strong, but characters development is lacking.” Usually, that means the plot isn’t good as well.
How do you think a character is developed enough? The more a reader gets a sense of who he is, the more is revealed about him, the more he is being developed.
There are a number of ways to let your audience know more about a character, and most often writers use a mix of these tactics than relying on just one. Let’s start with the best:
What The Character Does
A character is best expressed/developed by how he handles challenges. What he does when faced with a conflict. If you follow the basics of good plotting (intent, obstacle, action, resolution), the character will develop as well, often without trying.
This is because he’ll take action against the conflict. He’ll act in a more revealing and meaningful way no matter what. And so he’ll develop.
If you see someone at a party talking loudly, spilling his drink and making rude comments, those actions will help you reach a level of judgement about him.
We tend to judge people from their actions. When we describe a character through his actions, we don’t need to make the trait explicit. It’s understood without an explanation.
If a character steals something, we can tell may be he’s a thief. If he tells two people different accounts of the same story, we can assume he’s a liar. If he beats someone brutally, nobody need to tell us that he’s violent. We know because we “saw” him doing it.
Some actions may also be habits or patterns – something a character always does in a specific setting or situation, like clipping stories when reading the newspaper, or stopping at a shop on the way home, or taking out the trash every thursday, or a certain way to write his signature.
Each habit or pattern implies something about a character. The audience may not know how the habit began, but they can assume that the character will always act the same way in the same setting.
In fact, it is this reliance that opens up a range of possibilities. A deviation from a habit can be used to portray change in the character’s life, personality or emotional state.
Or it may happen that someone takes an advantage of his habit. Or someone is so annoyed or delighted by a habit that creates an interesting relationship dynamic with the character. The options are endless.
What The Character Wants
Actions by themselves can be misleading if we don’t know the motive. What if the guy spilling his drink and talking rudely and loudly at a party is doing it to divert attention from something else in the hall?
You wouldn’t judge him the same way now as you did earlier.
And the friend who shared your secret with another person. What if that other person had threatened to kill you if your friend doesn’t tell the secret, and so your friend did it to save your life.
The same action now paints a different picture of the character because we know the motive. Without motive, we cannot interpret an action, and the associated character traits, with certainty.
So as a storyteller, it’s your job to help readers understand the intent of your characters with clarity and certainty.
Interactions With Other Characters
While it isn’t practical or possible to have every character in at least one scene with every other character, you should always consider the possibility. Some of the most joyful parts of any story are reading or watching how two or more of the most different characters interact with each other.
Fiction is about exploring the motivations, emotions and quirks within your characters and what happens when they collide with those of other characters.
Many exciting opportunities to delight the reader are missed simply because the author didn’t bring two or more of the most unique characters – whose interactions would have made for great tension, drama or fun – in one or more scenes.
Now if you have a strong reason for not bringing two characters together, by all means, stick to your decision. The idea is to consider the possibility in case you haven’t. You don’t want the reader to miss the opportunity to discover something interesting about your characters and the story.
Going Into Character’s Past
If you’re introduced to a person in a social gathering, you’ll try to make sense of him only from what he says or does at the gathering.
But what if you were told by a friend that this person had been a prisoner of war for 10 years who managed to escape and come back? Or that all his family members died in a car accident a few months ago? Or that he’s a local journalist who criticized your latest novel last week?
Bits of information from someone’s past will make you look at him differently than otherwise. People are what they do and what they want, but also what they have done and gone through till now.
When you create or want to reveal more about a character, letting the audience in on something in his past is another device you have in your toolbox.
What Other Characters Say
Often we assume a lot of things about someone we barely know because we heard others say them. In storytelling too, you can allow your audience to form opinions about characters based on reputation – what others are saying about the character.
It’s up to you if you want the character to be exactly as what others say about him. You can also deviate from the portrayals and expectations set by other characters. But if you do so, you’ll have to make sure the audience understands why the character has a contradicting reputation.
May be he acts differently in public to maintain a positive or negative image, or victim of gossip or misunderstanding. May be he did something really great or horrible once, and that became his mark.
What The Character Can Do
Often a character can appear dull and ordinary – until you watch him delivering a presentation, play the guitar or move things with his mind.
A character can be known for an extraordinary skill or ability – for being unusually good or bad at something.
To make a certain talent an important part of who a character is, it doesn’t have to be something extreme. Superman, for example, is unusually strong and can also fly.
On the other hand, Spenser (from Robert Parker’s series) doesn’t have superpowers but he’s a good boxer. And that too because he practices regularly and works hard to stay that way.
If a character was able to escape from an enemy in the snowy mountains on skis, you better have established earlier that he loves or knows about skiing.
Likes & Dislikes
Apart from the ability to fight, the things that sticks out about Spenser is his love for literature, especially Poetry.
A character can be so fond of gardening that he spends a certain hour everyday attending to his plants. Our tastes and preferences are part of who we are.
They don’t actually define who a character is, for two characters may have the same taste in music and movies, but still be completely different people.
Nevertheless, they play an important part in making the character more real and making the audience feel like they know the character. And in opening up more possibilities for the character.
For example, a character’s love for wines may take him to a winery, give him something to chat about in a party, or to boast about his knowledge and taste in wines, or to embarrass another character for his lack of sophistication.
You may be thinking I forgot about body parts, or clothing and accessories. But I have not. And the fact that I am including these things last isn’t an accident.
No doubt these details are important. A physical condition – like disease or handicap – can change the entire character within a story.
Even minor details – like obesity, weakness or lack of physical attractiveness – have an impact on how character feels, acts and is treated by others.
The reason I am discussing it last isn’t that it’s trivial. It’s because so many aspiring writers tend to think of character descriptions only in terms of physical appearance.
They go at length on hair color, facial complexion, clothes, eyes, ears, fingers and what not and they think that’s characterization. But physical description is just one of the many factors that go into developing a character.
If you have covered a character’s actions, talents, motives, history and reputation to a level that’s adequate for the story, the audience don’t necessarily need to know what color the eyes were, unless it’s something unusual or necessary for the plot.
Actions, motives and past are probably the three most important factors you should be focusing on for the audience to feel like they know the character.