What makes an interesting story character for the ages? It’s more than just having them grow or learn something, and it’s more than just having them being be like a real person. While each of those qualities are important, they are no more than a tree or two when you’re looking for a forest.
Let’s suppose we have a character who is a British secret agent/commando who has been snuck into Nazi-occupied France to help form an underground resistance and coordinate efforts with London. He easily could be a stereotypical tough guy, and while that might be fine for a pure action-adventure tale, the story could be so much more with a little character development. To ensure he – or any character in any story – more intriguing, we should make our Captain Oliver Smith:
Three-dimensional or round
A real person has a broad range of behaviors and often conflicting emotions. Our Captain Smith wouldn’t always be no-nonsense tough. He also would have moments when he feels empathy for others and so is helpful even though being so doesn’t serve his mission. He would have moments when he needs a break from the job and relaxes at the local taverne, when he would feel doubtful about the chances of his mission succeeding, when he would be afraid despite his training. He does not behave the same way in every single scene. Most importantly, by stories end he might change his viewpoint or overcome some internal flaw based on his experiences.
Though real people evolve and change, they also are creatures of habit. Likewise, a story character must behave in a way that the reader would expect them to. This can be done quite subtly; perhaps Captain Smith always orders gin when he goes to the taverne. More significantly, consistency must arise from the character’s motivations, values and goals. Perhaps he possesses a strong sense of duty and so even when he doubts the success of a mission, he goes through with it. Indeed, even if Captain Smith does something surprising in a story, that he would do it must make sense based on his motivations and values.
Real people are imperfect. While a person may be more good than bad, a lone bad decision he makes can carry severe consequences, which in a story can lead to great suspense and tension. Captain Smith’s flaw might be that he’s increasingly dealing with the stress of his mission (maintaining his secret identity, loss of fellow resistance fighters, constantly being in life and death situations) by drowning himself in alcohol. Of course, this eventually will hamper his ability to carry out his mission or perhaps he talks a little too much one night when drunk.
Every real person has some memorable quality about them, some distinct habit, behavior or tic that sets them apart from all others. In a story, this unique quality should make them “cool” from the reader’s viewpoint. Perhaps Captain Smith’s quality is that he can solve problems by being able to find unique uses of the few, limited resources he has around him. While this ability to think outside of the box and improvise makes him a master saboteur, he also should demonstrate this talent in other instances; perhaps he is able to help repair a villager’s car or house despite not having the proper tools or parts.
Readers always should be able to identify with the character. This may seem to be out of your realm of control, but many of us face universal issues and concerns; you want to find where those issues and concerns intersect with your readers and include those qualities in your character. In the case of Captain Smith, he might find that he often wants to take action but can’t because others oppose him or because some frustrating circumstance arises; your readers likely will relate to this sense of having one’s hands tied. Able to identify with Smith, they then will vicariously delight in the scene when he actually cuts through the nonsense and accomplishes what he (and they) knew had to be done.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.