Simple Ways to Write Decent1 Characters
Sometimes, characters do stupid things. Sometimes, they do frustrating things. Sometimes, they do things that disgust us. All range of human emotion and action are available to us to explore, but some characters take actions that make no sense. No sense, in this case, is a precarious balance between self-consistency and believability.
1) Who Are You?
What traits and characteristics form the core of a person?
Are their values the key to their personhood? Are the beliefs at the core of what they do what really matter, even when those beliefs are tortured and twisted, or worse, betrayed?
Is it their actions that make them who they are? After all, to everyone we meet and society on the whole, what are we but a conglomeration of our actions?
Is it their emotions? Is it their traits, or their thoughts? A mix of all of these things?
I like to think that who a person is lies somewhere between what they do, what they profess to believe, and what they feel inside. To point at what makes a human human, you must place a few touchstones that a reader can hold fast to, things that differentiate them from the multitude we pass by on the street and never know more about.
Picking a few traits to bring to the forefront is as important for characters that appear for one scene as it is in the inital stages of building a protagonist, or any other major character for that matter. The right half-sentence can do the work of a half-page of description.
2) First Impressions
The first few lines of introduction for a character are the most important. It is in these lines, which should be a mix of dialogue, action, and description, that the character’s most notable traits, whatever they may be, can be well-imprinted into the memories of the reader. Throw out a single physical characteristic that can act as a touchstone when you mention their name. It could be any sense, it doesn’t have to be something you could see. A scent or sound is always useful, both because they aren’t as oft-used as something visual, and a good deal of our memories come from scent and sound.
A quick note: Don’t use this first piece of physical information as a pronoun surrogate throughout your story. People don’t care for that.2
Aside from that bit of advice, the overall idea is to give a synecdoche of the character on the whole as they are when you meet them. Have them take some self-consistent action, or say something more or less uniquely them. If you can’t think of something like that for a character, either you should contemplate who your character is, or you could write through it, adding that flavor back in later, after the character has better revealed themselves to you.
Let’s assume that you’ve got your character’s initial state down pat. There’s still quite the slog of treacherous terrain ahead of you to keep your characters meaningful and interesting.
The major issue is keeping the arc of change or lack of change consistent with the character and how they, as real people, would react to stimuli and new life events. This is the key to making your characters feel real. For example, an old curmudgeon who hasn’t changed his outlook on life in fifty years is unlikely to change his way of thinking in any impactful way without some major, life-altering event, a la Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
This isn’t to say that people can’t change. It’s just that they have to change in ways that they would change. Don’t let your personal care for the narrative you want to happen interfere with the ways in which characters interact with their world, change it, and let it change them. This more naturalistic method of storytelling and character development goes a long way to create a piece that feels genuine as opposed to artificial.
Now, I don’t mean to say that characters should never do anything outside of their comfort zone, personality wise. That is a big part of interesting story telling. Yet, the actions, words, and changes a person does, says, and goes through should be in keeping with who they are, or at least with how they wish to be perceived. There are exceptions, like insanity, or better yet, intense stress or duress, to this general rule.3 Speaking of insanity…
4) Not Everyone can be Mad
Sometimes, people act in ways that make no sense, or at least no sense to an observer. Sometimes, people have genuine mental health as well. Yet, there’s a tendency to make characters, especially villains, act irrationally, often to their detriment. There are times and places where that can make sense, but tread lightly on that tainted ground.
It is much less rewarding for protagonists, or lacking that, generally likable characters, to defeat someone acting madly than for them to defeat a rational, albeit generally perfidious foe. It allows you to give substance to the other side of your story, the value of which should be self-evident. If you need an irrational character, then at least make that irrationality follow a meaningful or comprehensible pattern. Characters can be irrational as long as it is well defined enough. Keep truly mad characters to the past of the story, or use them sparingly, and almost never to change the plot through their madness.
Just make characters—good, bad or whatever—real, interesting people, not caricatures, and everything should be OK.
- Read: Not Shit. ↩
- You should replace characters names and pronouns with description occasionally, but don’t do it unless it’s already clear who you’re talking about and the description is novel. ↩
- People do crazy things when they’re in love is not an excuse for poor character development. People do crazy things when they’re afraid. If that’s how love feels for them, then OK. ↩