We read about characters we care about to find out what will happen to them. If you have a killer plot but flat characters, the reader won’t bother to finish your story because they won’t care what happens to your characters.
So how do you make readers care about people who don’t exist?
By making your characters feel real. A character becomes life-like when you flesh him out and layer him with details—and I don’t just mean favorite food, band, or what color underwear he’s wearing. Those little details have their place, but to truly make a character come to life, we must dig deeper.
For this post, I will be using the character Elsa from Frozen as an example (If you haven’t seen the movie you must have a frozen heart and need to go crawl into a corner in shame). Let’s begin, shall we?
STEP #1: Childhood/Family
A person is heavily shaped and influenced by how they grew up and what sort of family they had. Did your character have a happy childhood, or was he abused or abandoned? How does his past affect who he is today?
Elsa: Her parents didn’t approve of her powers and wanted her to hide them. When she accidentally hurt Ana, she felt shame and guilt and tried even harder to suppress them. She cut herself off from Ana to try to protect her. Elsa’s childhood experiences had a huge impact on her character–she doesn’t know how to control her powers and feels like an outcast.
STEP #2: Hopes and Dreams
We all have them, and giving your character one will help reveal more about who he is. What is the deepest desire of his heart? Does he want to find true love? Travel to India? Start his own business? His dream doesn’t have to be the goal of the story, but it will reveal more about him.
Elsa: She wants to be able to be herself and live alone in her ice palace in peace where she won’t be a danger to anyone.
STEP #3: Fears
Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Bruce Wayne is afraid of bats. Ron Weasley is afraid of spiders. Giving your character a fear makes him more relatable. It doesn’t have to be a fear of something physical, it can also be a fear of something abstract like loss, loneliness, or the dark.
Elsa: She is afraid of her powers throughout most of the movie. She fears them because she doesn’t know how to control them, and she is afraid she will hurt Ana again.
STEP #4: Flaws
If you make your character perfect, he won’t be relatable and will feel unrealistic *cough*EdwardCullen*cough.* Consider both internal and external flaws. For example, Ron Weasley in Harry Potter is described as gangly, and he also has a temper and tends to swear. He’s not portrayed as perfect, which is what is charming and likable about him.
Elsa: She spent her childhood shutting Ana out and keeping secrets from her. She is too insecure and ashamed to be herself and be honest with Ana.
STEP #5: Strengths vs. Weaknesses
What are your character’s strengths? Is he honest, loyal, or good with a sword? Again, think both internal and external. Whatever strengths you give him, you will also have to balance them out with weaknesses. Does he act before he thinks, have a gambling habit, or is terrible at cooking?
Elsa: Her strength is her love and loyalty for her sister, which breaks the spell and saves Ana’s life. But her weakness is her insecurity with being herself and her inability to control her powers.
STEP #6: Outlook/beliefs
The way your character sees the world will affect his personality. Is he a pessimist or optimist? Does he believe in Hinduism or is he Jewish? Is he cynical or naïve?
Elsa: She is more responsible and practical, as we see when she responds to Ana’s announcement of her engagement by saying, “You can’t marry a man you just met!” She seems more wary of people and seems to see the darker side of the world because of the way her parents treated her.
Of course there are many more aspects to creating realistic characters, but I feel that these 6 things are your essential building blocks. Before you start a story, write a short “bio” for your main characters that answers these questions. Getting to know your characters first will make the writing process easier because you’ll know how they will react in the situations you throw them into.
Take the time to develop your characters and they will become real to you–and your reader.
What brings characters to life for you as a reader?