Think about your favourite stories (including books, movies and TV shows). There are probably a bunch of reasons you love them. How many of those reasons have to do with the characters?
You can tell a story with boring characters, but it won’t be a very good one. Great characters make great stories. One of the best examples I can think of is Finding Nemo. Have you ever stopped to consider that it’s just a movie about a bunch of fish? I’m sorry, but that’s pretty dull. Or, it would have been if they hadn’t given each one of the little sea creatures its own unique personality. That’s what took the movie from a decent story to a huge hit. Take Dory for example. Everybody loves her. And why wouldn’t you? She’s kind, friendly and optimistic—a great friend. But those aren’t the first things you think of when you think of the little blue fish, are they? No, the writers gave her short-term memory loss, which makes her absolutely hilarious. What a brilliant idea!
So next time you write a story, how can you make sure your characters are interesting enough to take your story from decent to great? Here are some tips:
Keep your eyes open. Watch the people around you: friends, family, random people in the mall, etc. Notice the little things that make them unique. If you do that for a while, you’ll come up with lots of little traits that will make your fictional characters come alive. (Well, not really, because that would be scary.) TV shows, movies and books are also great places for character ideas.
Each character in your story should be different. Even better, opposites work well. The two main characters in Space Cadets are twelve-year-old twins, Simon and Casey. Simon avoids trouble, tends to be a little bit fearful and solves problems by thinking things through clearly. Casey is bold and fearless, but sometimes gets herself into trouble by acting without thinking. Because they’re so different, they tend to disagree a lot (which is way more interesting than characters who always see things the same way). But they also work together well, because each learns to rely on the others’ strengths to make up for their own weaknesses.
Keep it simple. You’re likely writing short stories rather than novels, so if you try to do too much—like giving each character 147 unique characteristics—your reader will most likely end up confused, bored or both. If you give each main character the basics (gender, name, age, occupation, basic physical appearance) plus one other interesting characteristic, that will be enough to make a huge difference with your writing.
Stay away from copying characters, whether from other stories or real life. My readers often ask me how I come up with my characters. Are they based on real people? The answer is yes and no. Every single one of my characters is in some way like others I’ve come across (in stories or real life), but none are ever exactly like them. Like most authors, my characters are made of little bits and pieces of different people/characters I’ve come across: this one’s eyes, that one’s temper, another person’s laugh, etc.
Now that I’ve passed on some pointers, I’m going to give you one more thing to help you out. Below is a list of more than 40 character traits that you can use to help you build unique, interesting characters. Try it out, keeping in mind the pointers above. (If you like, you can download the list here: Character Building.)
|Common Character Traits:|
|brave||cautious||unsure of self|
|determined (doesn’t give up easily)||optimistic (believes everything will turn out well)|
|thoughtful (thinks of others feelings & needs)||pessimistic (believes everything will turn out badly)|
|selfish (thinks only about self)||likes to be the center of attention|
|impulsive (acts without thinking)||avoids the spotlight|
Let me know how it goes! Use the form in the sidebar (to the right, under “Get in Touch’) to contact me, or email me at email@example.com.
Space Cadets is my first book, but I have a bunch of ideas bouncing around in my head, so more are sure to follow!
Latest posts by Robin Pawlak (see all)
- Writing With Robin, #4: Characters - April 29, 2019
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