Characters are the windows to our story’s soul. They embody our wants, wishes and desires, and we often use them to say the things we can’t in real life without being called a “racist,” “sexist,” or “that guy who has some strange ideas about Israel for someone who’s not very religious.”
The following is a sneak-peak of what you’ll learn in my 75 part, non-refundable online writing course on how to create believable, dynamic characters that aren’t obvious self-inserts.
Give your characters strong opinions
As a writer, there’s a good chance you’re naturally passive. You’re probably afraid to speak in front of others, cower from responsibility and suffer from a complete lack of charisma.
To write resonant characters, however, you’ve got to provide strong personalities readers will want to follow for the next 300 pages. Giving your character strong opinions is a great way to do so.
For example, I wrote a story about a lonely, American twenty-something unsure of what to do with his life who also thought the holocaust wasn’t such a big deal. I realized it wasn’t working and couldn’t quite understand why. After a good deal of consultation with my beta readers, I decided it would be much better if he denied the holocaust ever happened at all. Now he was somebody who got your attention.
Unpredictability is key
Storytelling is all about character growth, how characters react to their circumstances and how they mould the world around them. Nothing will grip a reader more than a character making an important decision your reader didn’t expect, and if you followed my last piece of advice, sharp changes of mind will be all the more striking.
For example, try making your conformist, browbeaten neighborhood butcher, who has spent his whole life doing what he’s told and making sausage from animal parts, decide one day that he’s going to make sausage out of human parts.
It can go the other way, too. Make your antagonist the good guy. Maybe the liberal philosophy professor decides he isn’t going to give another lecture about why everyone needs to be atheist, quits his job and instead goes to church to pray.
Grudges are another key
This goes part and parcel with strong opinions. Much of our folklore – hell, much of human history – is built upon grudges. I think naturally we as humans are fearful of outsiders, occupying forces and the imminent threat of Sharia law being implementing in our schools.
Your grudges can be professional, political, social or familial. And sometimes, the vaguer the better. A hinted-at grudge is a great way to worldbuild without wasting too much time on exposition. In my Grisham-esque thriller The Subtle Subpoena, we don’t need to be told why the protagonist has it in for the criminal defense firm Abelman, Cohen and Blumenthal – it should be obvious.
Improve physical descriptions by being as specific as possible
Strong, unique physical descriptions are a cornerstone of great character. Read the following sentence: “The cashier had a mole under his right eye.” Decent, but it leaves a lot to the imagination. Here’s a much better version of that sentence: “The cashier had a mole 2.78 centimeters below his right eye.”
Better, right? It’s much easier to picture this way. In the first example, the mole could technically be anywhere under his right eye; it could be next to his mouth, on his neck, on his knee, or even under his left eye.
Character names are more important than anything
Nobody wants to read a book about someone named Jared or Brayden. That’s why it’s important you pick evocative names that follow the three “make it’s”: Make it era-appropriate, alliterative and symbolic.
Names that don’t fit the era they’re set in can be distracting. If you’re writing a historical drama about the Antebellum South, don’t do what I did and name your general Zebulon Geezwax of the Ursa Antilles Cluster.
Also, alliterate every name you can. All great writers and porn stars do it. Names like Candy Cox and Dante Demarcus DeHarrison already tell the reader a lot about the character.
And slather your names in symbolism. Don’t call your character something boring like Joe unless you want him to be an everyman. If you’re writing sci-fi give them a mythic Greek last name and if you’re writing literary fiction give them a mythic Greek first name. Or use obscure color names like Vermillion Dax, Smaragdine Simons, and Burnt Sienna.
The third key is interesting professions
There have already been a lot of books about sea captains, princes, private detectives, humanities professors, hippies and refugees who just whine about everything that’s happened to them. It’s your job as a writer to explore the unexplored, and what better way to do so than by picking a character with a unique profession.
Some ideas: Podcasters who will do anything to uphold the Second Amendment; a Crisis Actor; a movie producer and lobbyist trying to repeal the Second Amendment; a lawyer who happens to be a woman; and the most unsung of all heroes, Israeli politicians.
Finally, you need a moral dilemma
So you’ve got an opinionated, grudge-bearing, unpredictable character with a unique name and profession. But eventually your story will hinge upon the decisions that character makes, and a perfect way to do that is to put their convictions to test, to force them to make uncomfortable choices. This conflict is the essence of all my books (and I assume others as well).
Will your podcaster let Spotify ban his streams on their platform, or will he use his Second Amendment rights to uphold the First? Maybe your character has always been taught men and women are equal? If so, what will he do to stop radical feminists from attacking him on social media?
To learn more about character development, contact us to enroll in our comprehensive online course. It’s just three easy payments of $88.