Characters are what propels a reader through a story. If there was just plot, than a synopsis would do the job of a book just fine. People attach themselves to characters – they either love them and want to see them succeed, or hate them and wish to see them fail. Either emotion is more than enough to get a person through a story.
Now, stuff has to happen, but I feel that if that stuff comes from the characters, and their decisions and mistakes, then it’s more powerful for those reading it.
I recently read a couple of books where I just didn’t care about the characters other than the main character. So this is in reaction to that – to both put my thoughts in order and perhaps help others to avoid some of the mistakes I avoid.
This isn’t a list in that it’s not a numerical “From 10 to 1” list. But it still seems easiest to make it a list, so here it goes.
- Give each named character enough room to breathe
One of the major issues I came across was having too many characters introduced at once. If all your characters do is they contribute to a conversation, then I’m not going to form a connection to them. I’m going to instead spend time wondering why this conversation couldn’t have had involved two people instead of seven. The more characters there are in any particular scene, the less room there is for individual, personal conflict. And it’s conflict in stories that make people interesting. Otherwise they’re just scenery
- Give characters enough actions and decisions to make them relevant
This again plays into the scenery issue. Characters who don’t make decisions or take action become props for the main character. This is fine, and some of them may even be memorable. But don’t make all of your characters things for the MC to react to. Give them some agency of their own. It adds uncertainty to the plot, and creates characters that can step out of the story, because they have the capability to make decisions that aren’t directly relevant to the plot.
- Give characters distinct relationships to each other
If a character has a relationship, both with the main character, and with the other characters, then they become real. They have a sphere of influence that stretches beyond the plot. You can imagine, if they were just given the time and room in the book, that they could have their own stories and lives to share.
And last but not least (and not everyone will agree with me on this):
- Try not to name characters if they don’t at least do one of these things. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s impossible to just name them after their roll (the captain, the chef, whatever). Because you’re just wasting a good name otherwise.
Feature Picture Attributed to: Benjamin Stäudinger (ontourwithben), taken from http://flic.kr/p/cWt857 under the creative commons licence, some rights reserved