Stories move us. They teach, they challenge, they offer solace. But the power of a story derives not from lush description of settings or plot intricacies, but rather from the central conflict set up among the major characters. So although the conflict — the plot — matters, the reader’s emotional response to the characters probably matters more. We root for the underdog because we sympathize with her; we delight in the comeuppance of the villain because we dislike him. These emotions follow because, to a degree, we as readers get to know the characters in a story as friends, acquaintances or even as enemies. We come to know them as people, not just as collections of ink splotches on a hunk of recycled tree pulp.
But no one is friends with the cardboard cut-outs of famous actors sometimes on sale at game stores or theaters. And rightly so: They’re cardboard. And what’s cardboard, but a two-dimensional, static reflection of a person who is much more interesting in the real world?
We authors can do better than two-dimensional, plastic-banana characters in our stories:
- Vary speech patterns. No two real-life humans speak with the same diction and rhythm, so no two characters in a story should, either. Give different characters trademark catchphrases. Introduce minor accents, y’all, but not so heavily they distract the reader with phonetic misspellings. Some people misunderestimate the right words to use; others hew to the sesquipedalian. Some peeps are like totally super colloquial, you know? Whereas, other individuals deign to affect formality in their discourse. Treat dialogue transitions as a part of a vocal pattern — some people are interrupters, some pause to think, some raise or lower their volume to make a point. Let the story communicate the differences among characters based on their individual vocal fingerprints.
- Make them real, physically. In the living world, most people aren’t supermodels. Your characters shouldn’t be, either. Avoid being one of “those authors” who mostly create major characters with whom they’d like to wake up the next morning. Bring in the elderly, the obese, the differently abled. Give some folks scars or bad skin or war wounds or … well, whatever. Just don’t treat any deviation from supermodel status as a negative point that must be called out and criticized in stereotypical fashion. For example, don’t make the overweight kid the “fatty” who is not only physically repulsive, but clearly lazy, too. Too many writers associate decreasing physical attractiveness with increasing moral turpitude, a trend that’s both idiotic and disrespectful. Skillful authors will think thrice before tying a character’s physical attributes to a behavioral stereotype.
- Introduce tics and habits. Some people tug their earlobes when they’re nervous. Others fiddle with glasses or a watch, or play with their hair, or always wear a particular item of jewelry, or get sick after drinking wine on an empty stomach. Introduce behavioral quirks that humanize your characters, but deploy them with judicious infrequency.
- Make them as irrational as real humans are, but for a reason that’s coherent. Readers feel slighted when a character does something unexpected that’s, well, out of character. Two considerations: First, a character should be true to his personality; a pacifist, for example, isn’t suddenly going to shiv someone with a broken pencil for line-cutting at the farmer’s market. Second, unless the character grapples with mental illness, the reader will expect that the character’s behavior be coherent. Usually, behavioral coherence is a function of the psychology you’ve built up for a character, dosed by an understanding of that character’s basic moral paradigm. A deontologist, for example, is a person whose ethical outlook favors the satisfaction of duties. Many “knights of the circular table” types are deontologists, so the reader will expect that their choices are framed by the character’s various duties. A duty-bound person acts different compared to a consequentialist, a natural-law theorist or a divine-command theorist. Although many good stories focus on the conflict that make people confront different ethical choices — e.g., the knight must choose between his duty of going to battle in a far-off land for his king, versus his duty to save his village from bandits — you rarely see tales of brave knights abandoning their kings because the consequence of desertion is life in the forest with a tavern wench whereas the consequence of battle is either glory or death.
- Understand your characters before you write about them. If you write for fun or for the exercise of it, good for you; this section doesn’t apply. But few things grate like a person who writes with an intent to publish, yet doesn’t bother to execute a character study before writing. I hear the objection: “Well, I’m going to discover my character along with my readers!” which is code for, “I’m too lazy to do it right, so I’m just going to do stream-of-consciousness writing and wait for the royalty checks to pour in!” The problem with inadequate character prep is that a character really does develop as the book unfolds — and yes, that’s a problem in most books that transpire over a constrained period of time. When the protagonist at the end of the story has a personality that’s simply not present at the beginning of the story, then the beginning of the story has been diminished. Or when a story takes place over a week and one of the main characters becomes a different person from beginning to end for reasons that are purely accidental (i.e., not driven by a major plot arc), then yes, that’s implausible character development. Authors who intend to publish should know their characters at the beginning of their story, not just at the end of it.
Readers will forgive skimping on scene descriptions or occasional minor holes in the plot, but if they can’t identify with your characters, odds are good they’ll reject your story, root and branch.