Whether you write fact or fiction, if you write a narrative of any kind you must understand how to write a believable character. When I write fiction, characters can be challenging, particularly when writing a novel-length work. It takes a long time to write a novel (even if you’re a fast writer), so you may lose track of things you wrote about a character’s history, behaviors, or appearance. Writing non-fiction may be easier in terms of description because you more readily remember what a real person looks like, how that person speaks, and whether or not that person is friendly. Such traits in our fictional characters are not always so easy to remember, especially when they only live in our heads. Fret not, wordsmiths. I have tricks up my sleeve.
Many years ago I heard an interview with former President Jimmy Carter. He had just finished another novel (he’s written several), and the interviewer asked him about his character development. Carter shared that a helpful exercise he likes to use is to write a biography for each main character of his stories. When I heard this idea, a light went on in my head. Biographies? That is so clever, I thought, and then I stole his idea, which he probably also stole from some other writer. This approach works very well for character development if you know where you want to go with the story, and know how you want to utilize the characters. It can also be a wonderful exercise if you write a new character into a story, and you need to decide what kind of history or mannerisms the character may have. When you go back to writing, your characters will come to life far more readily when you have their bio in your mind.
Another trick I like to use when writing long-form is to keep a list of traits handy. The bio is fabulous for working out details of characters’ lives, but when you’re in the thick of plot development and the story is flying along, you don’t want to stop and read a long bio to find out the color of a character’s eyes. Instead, I like to keep short lists of hair and eye color, general appearance like height and weight, whether or not a character wears glasses or has some defining feature, and any other pertinent info that might be needed in a jiffy. I have cheat sheets for most of my characters so I avoid having to pore through too many notes, and also to avoid making mistakes when characters come and go. It gets hairy when you have a long list of characters to remember, especially if they have small parts in the plot.
Aside from remembering who has the suave, debonair appearance and who is short and stocky, it’s helpful to keep tabs on character traits that come across as realistic. Writers tend to be rather observant people most of the time, since our work often requires that we pay attention to our surroundings as fodder for later word painting. Next time you head out to the local café to do a little word craft, take a few minutes to people watch. If you’re paying attention long enough, you’ll notice that every single person you see has particular mannerisms which make each individual recognizable. Subtle things like the way a person blinks, sits, walks, or eats are often peculiarly individualized. We all have odd habits, too. When I sit for a long time, I might start to bounce a leg or tap a pencil. People with long hair often tuck it behind an ear; do they do it with an index finger, middle finger, or with a pinky raised? These types of details bring a character to life, and they are best noted when you want your characters to be memorable.
Another trait of memorable and realistic characters centers around speech. The way people phrase sentences, their accent, and their pronunciation all create a clearer image of a person in any story. It’s not always necessary to get this detailed with every character, but main characters deserve the attention. Does your hero or heroine have a speech impediment? Does he or she have crooked or missing teeth? Where did this person live and grow up—a defining factor in how a person pronounces words. Then again, did this person work on losing an accent? If so, does it slip when he or she gets upset or angry? All these questions can lead to a more well-rounded individual who comes to life on the page, full of all the millions of tiny pieces which add up to an individual’s personality.
If coming up with a character’s history seems like a struggle, one last trick I will share is to pillage for ideas from the real world. Think about people you know, and draw on their characteristics. For instance, if you know a person who has a habit of clearing her throat a lot, that behavior may inspire you to write just that characteristic into one of your characters (but I don’t advise doing this with a person you know will read your book unless you ask if they mind). Every person in your life has quirks and mannerisms you can use as inspiration for character qualities, and if you draw from several people in your life to create a mash-up of traits, then you have a whole new person. Again, it behooves you to make sure these traits are not those of a person close to you unless you ask if they mind that you use them as an inspiration. Many people will be pleased to have you write an aspect of their personality into a story, unless you turn them into a villain. They may not appreciate your use of their characteristics for that, but I suppose some folks might surprise you. Just be polite and ask, or go back to your local coffee shop and find inspiration in total strangers.
To wrap up, one last place I will send you to glean new insight is to go read books with great characters. This may seem obvious to some writers, but I know plenty of writers who forget about studying from the masters. Charles Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, Ursula LeGuin, JK Rowling, and Kazuo Ishiguro all write fabulous characters often recognizable through their dialogue alone. As I have told many of my past writing students, one of the best ways to learn the writing craft is always to read good writing, especially in the genre you want to write. Even outside of genre, good writing is good writing. Read and you will learn, especially if you read with a pen in your hand to take notes or highlight.
As you work on creating your own characters, remember details matter. Readers love emotion, and often enjoy rooting for underdogs. The more quirky your characters, the more likely your readers are to remember them. Even if you’re writing romance, your chisel-chinned object of desire can still be a dorky nerd about science, or your ravishing beauty can be a sky-diving adrenaline junkie. Take the time to let us into the heads of your heroes and heroines, show us their flaws, and remember to drop hints of their past to build a world your fans will love falling into every time they read.