(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
A great character is a boon companion to a writer. They can generate sharp dialogue, improve any scene, generate plot through their actions, and invest a reader in a story no matter how surreal or farfetched it may be. A great character will be remembered by the reader long after the book has been closed and all the machinations of plot have been forgotten and scattered to the wind. Characters have the potential of transcending not only the stories they inhabit and, like Sherlock Holmes or Jane Eyre, the career of writer themselves. Characters are how the reader most naturally enters a text. Characters are what stick with people.
But what makes a great character, exactly? What is the lightning a writer needs to catch and put into their fictional bottle?
Details, baby. Details.
A great character is a combination of specific details, both external and internal. Let’s break down some of the possibilities.
- Facial features
- Skin features (like color, freckles, etc.)
- Body features (like broad shoulders, muscle tone, etc.)
- Eye Color
- Hair (color, length, style)
- Speech (patterns, accents, tone, etc.)
- Conspicuous mannerisms, gestures
- Singular identifiers (like a tattoo or a scar or a peg leg, etc.
- Emotional State
- Thought patterns
- Internal voice
- Degree of Intelligence
- Sense of humor
- Sense of morality
- Sense of sexuality
- Personal history (this is a big one, obviously)
- External perception
- Philosophic/Religious Views
These are just some of the details an author can choose to pack into a character and both lists could run much longer, I am sure. What an author looking to create a well-rounded character needs to do is pick and choose details that will both flesh out a character through what they imply about that character and enhance the overall story the character is participating in. (For example, if you’re writing a farce comically arrogant characters make great foils. If you’re writing a mystery, curious characters make great detectives. If you’re writing an epic fantasy quest, persistent characters make great heroes. And so on.)
Not only does the author need to pick the choice details, they need to get them established as soon as possible. Like aspects of setting, a reader is scanning your characters from word one and trying to get handle on them. Clarity is important and so is the appropriateness of each detail. If a character is stiff and unnatural, and her actions not in line with what has already been established about her, the thin veil of fiction a writer has worked so hard to maintain throughout a narrative suddenly falls away and the reader sees the story for what it really is: paper dolls cut out of words and made to dance.
Readers have a natural tendency to see themselves in characters—well not themselves, exactly, but aspects of themselves they can identify with. It doesn’t matter if a main character is a complete villain, either, since readers are generous souls and can find sympathy even for the devil as long as he’s portrayed in a compelling manner (in fact, readers really like siding with villain—Satan comes off as heroic in Paradise Lost and he’s fighting to overthrow God). Romance authors understand this empathetic tendency as well as anybody and play it for all its worth—it’s not really Sherry Sexypants who’s having guilt free sex with that burly cabana boy, it’s their breathless readers. Characters are portals through which the reader enters a text and how they view the story’s world, which is why it is so crucial that a reader care about them, the more deeply the better.
The technique that is often suggested in developing a character is the authorial interview (that is, the author creates a bunch of interview questions and then answers them with the character’s personality in mind). This method is fine, I guess, but it’s always felt a little too much like homework for my tastes. Also, I believe characters are best discovered and their personalities revealed through action on the page (i.e., the classic show don’t tell school of writing philosophy), even in the nascent getting-to-know you stage of a story’s composition.
Here’s a couple of basic character exercises I’ve used in class to help get my students’ characterization muscles warmed up.
Describe an adult party with all its little sordid details from a teenager’s point of view. Extra vehemence and/or anguish is encouraged.
Using a detached third-person point of view, create a very eccentric character and have him or her interview for a job. Try to unspool the character’s eccentricity slowly through a chain of revelatory details, building to a crescendo.
Describe a scene on a train through the point of view of your main character. A stranger sits down across the aisle and your character gradually decides this stranger is one creepy, creepy individual.
Describe going to the mall or some other large public venue through the eyes of an extra-terrestrial that is somehow passing, externally, for a human being.
Beyond creating an interesting main character who’s fully engaged the reader’s attention an author needs to make sure that character is both active (as opposed to passive—nobody wants to read a story about a guy sitting on his couch sitting quietly all day without a thought in his head) and who contains the capacity for change. Like a full-sized rainbow, a fully formed character should have an arc throughout a story (especially the long novel) which finds them changed, to some degree and in some way, by the story’s end. A great character feels conflict in their heart and seeks to resolve that conflict. They have goals that can run the gamut from meeting basic needs like food and shelter to finding love or coming to terms with death. A great character strides across the page, trying to achieve some discernable goal, and seems to glow in the mind’s eye—they’re the person you’d be naturally drawn to at a big party. The person you’d want to learn more about.
Here’s a few of my favorite classic characters and why I find them compelling:
Don Quixote—Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Inspired by a love of courtly tales and in possession of a feverish imagination, Don Quixote goes “questing” across Spain. He may be delusional—for example he attacks windmills because he believes he’s a knight and they’re evil giants—but Quixote is also hopelessly optimistic, comical in his self-righteous arrogance, and a tragic figure as his delusions eventually fall away. He’s Captain Ahab’s dopey, more loveable younger brother and his relationship with his “squire” Sancho Panza is one of literature’s great all-time friendships. The reader follows along on Quixote’s many adventures while feeling the same kind of love you’d feel for a goofy relative.
Nastasya Filipovna—The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The beautiful, smoldering heroine of The Idiot, Nastasya is a woman split between two powerful inclinations: either opening her hardened and much-wounded heart and allowing herself to love a good man or serving herself up to sexy self-destruction. The reader can never be certain what Nastasya is going to do because she doesn’t know herself. Her attraction to both the novel’s hero and the novel’s anti-hero is so strong it feels radioactive. She’s a hot mess and a hot mess is so damn interesting.
Offred-A Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood
The first person narrator and main character of A Handmaid’s Tale relates her tale in a manner that’s riveting from page one. Offred is both the screw around which the novel’s plot turns and a distinct voice that breathes life into the novel’s dystopian setting: she’s both the camera and the lead actor. She’s also a budding rebel who eventually attempts to seize control of her own fate despite existing in a tightly regulated and very dangerous world. And who doesn’t love a rebel, right?
Ignatius Riley—A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole
A joyously Falstaffian character with a penchant for comically weird phraseology, losing his temper, arguing with his mother, getting fired, taking baths, and writing wildly inaccurate histories, Ignatius Riley is both bigger than life and a lot like somebody you’d sit next to on public transit. Here’s a character you love because of his flaws, not despite them.
Sethe—Beloved by Toni Morrison
Sethe, who has escaped the horrors of slavery and now lives in Cincinnati, is haunted both literally and metaphorically. Her home is beset by a spirit prone to violently throwing objects and her conscience is deeply troubled by the two-year-old daughter she’s killed years earlier. Sethe is a nuanced, traumatized character whose struggle to face and process her own past is so entwined in the plot of Beloved it is hard to imagine one without the other. Sethe is a textbook example of what academics mean by “character driven narrative” and her plight grips the reader all the way through.
Roland Deschain of Gilead—The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Roland is the classic Clint Eastwood/Western movie hero with a twist: he is a survivor of a world that has long faded into legend and thus is imbued with a welcome weirdness. On one hand he’s your standard The Hero with a Thousand Faces-type character, hell-bent on reaching the Dark Tower come what may, but on the other hand he possesses a uniquely dry gunslinger-type sense of humor and quirky talents that go beyond being a badass quick draw artist. Roland’s motivation is clearly defined and his personality is pleasantly drawn out by the traveling companions he meets along the way. With Roland, Stephen King took a classic ideal and twisted it into something new.
Cal/Calliope—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
An intersex character with a genetic condition that gives him female characteristics and causes him to be brought up as a girl until the age of fourteen, Cal/Calliope’s story is a such a whopper of a tale the reader keeps turning the page to find out how it all went down, even during the novel’s baggy and digressive first section. Middlesex is not so much character driven as it is character sweetened, with each gradually revealed Cal/Calliope detail acting as a fresh spoonful of honey. Sometimes writing is simpler than you think: just give the reader something they haven’t seen before and they’ll follow you almost anywhere.
I used to resent the effort required to flesh out characters. I was more into plot and setting and making everything go boom. I didn’t care what color my character’s eyes were or what kind of grades they got in high school or how many times they’d fallen in love or if they wanted to have kids some day. I wanted to zip along and write fast and die young. But a funny thing happened to me along the course of getting older and writing so many novels—I started caring as much about the characters as any other aspect of my work and my characters rewarded me in turn, coming alive in my mind like the kind of close, real life friends you have conversations with in your mind sometimes. This is one of the many positive effects writing fiction can have on a human being—this encouragement and development of empathy—and not a bad return for the investment involved.
 Okay this one is a variation on the character interview, I admit.
 This results of this prompt are always good for a laugh.
 Unless the point the author is trying to make is that the character doesn’t change, then…yay?