No matter how exciting your story, if your characters are flat, two-dimensional stereotypes no reader will connect with them and your story won’t work. Here are some pointers to help you create characters that come to life.
1. Start with a list
When I begin a novel, I start a page for each of my main characters. On that page I have all of the important information about that character. Some of the things I include are age, family, special mannerisms, education, what they look like, what they like to do, where they live, what they fear, ambitions. Some writers even have a prepared form that they fill in for each character. I don’t do that because different stories have different requirements but if it works for you give it a try. As I begin to write, and more details come out about the character I add this information to the character’s page. One thing to remember about this list is that it is for you the writer. It is for you to get to know your character. Some of that information might end up in the story, but not all of it.
2. Interview your character
This might sound crazy but some writers say this works. You interview your character as if you’re interviewing a real person so that you can interrogate what views they have on various issues to get a better idea in your mind about who they are. You need to know this person completely so you know how they will behave in your story.
3. Find a Photo of your Character
I’ve done this before. If I’m not seeing my character clearly, I page through magazines and newspapers to find someone who looks like the character in my head. I cut the photo out and staple it to my character’s page. If I can’t find the exact person I’ll take a head off one and a body off another.
4. Choose the right name
When a writer chooses a name for a character she must be careful. Firstly, the name should match the character. Names have certain impressions associated with them. For example your sexy, svelte kick-ass protagonist is not going to go over very well with readers if she’s called Bertha. And keep your readers in mind. I had an instance in one of my books where my main female character was called Lame. The book was published in South Africa where not everyone knows Setswana and a non-Setswana speaker would read the name as the word lame instead of La-mee. I only had this pointed out to me by the editor; I hadn’t thought of it myself, so her name was changed.
5. Don’t forget your Bad Guys
It’s easy to make good guys the reader can be sympathetic with, but what about your bad guys? If your bad guy is an adulterer, a child beater and a thief just because he’s evil, he’s not interesting, he’s flat and stereotypical. If instead he watched his mother murdered at the hands of his father, things become a bit more interesting. Your bad guy starts to come to life.
6. For Main Characters reveal them Through Action
For characterisation just like all other writing- show, don’t tell still applies. Let’s say your character is short on cash to buy a new car. You could have your character steal the money she needs. You could have her borrow the money from a cash loan company. You could have her get an extra piece job to earn the money. Each of these would be a way of showing something about your protagonist instead of saying she’s dishonest, not very disciplined, or hardworking.
7. Introduce your Main Character at the Right Time
When introducing your protagonist, do it at a point of crisis. Don’t start with her entire back story. Introduce her when her husband is leaving her or she just lost her job or her child died. This will immediately have the reader empathising with the character. They will want to know how she gets through this crisis. If a reader has interest in your protagonist they will have interest in your story, if not, they won’t.
8. Plot sometimes drives Characterisation and Some times it’s the other Way Around
If your plot for your detective novel requires the kicking in of doors and the running after bad guys, you need a detective that can fill those plot-prescribed shoes. A tough, fit character will be required. In literary fiction, that is pulled more by characterisation than by plot, the character will decide the plot. For example, if your character is one with weak morals and they succumb to an act of corruption, the plot must follow him to where he will go, to a place true to his character. Will he turn himself in? Will he run? Will he lie? Will he make a deal and turn his wife in? This will be decided by his personality which you the writer need to know inside and out.
(This column first appeared in The Voice newspaper on 4 November, 2011)