6 tips and tricks to developing strong fictional characters
I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the idea that characters can make or break a story. In most cases, if not all, they are our guide through a story. More importantly, sometimes the story is their story. Regardless, your characters need to be compelling, or at the very least real in some manner. Now, when I say real, I don’t mean they have to be human, but they need to have depth. Much like ogres, your characters need to be like onions; they have many layers. Now, “how,” you may ask, “does a character get so onion-like?” Never fear, here are some tips and tricks to consider when developing your little onions… er, characters:
Give your character a birthday
This might be obvious, but a character’s age is extremely important. A character who is 20 is going to act significantly different than one who is 30, and that is even truer if we are looking at one person. Their growth from 20 to 30 is going to change them. Even one year can change a person drastically, so knowing where they started is important to understand the journey to who they are later in life. It is also worth considering the time they were born in. Someone who was born in the 70s may have significantly different values than one who was born in the 80s, and they are also going to interact with people differently depending on when the other person was born. Age isn’t just a number when it comes to your character’s development.
Check your character’s horoscope
Once you give your character a birthday, check out their horoscope. Whether you believe in horoscopes or not, doesn’t matter. You can pick out a lot of characteristics based on their horoscope sign that you might not have considered previously. Plus, if you make the character’s birthday apparent to the reader, the reader may believe in horoscopes. If you develop a character that at least somewhat embodies that star sign, it may make all the difference in the world to that reader. Consider star signs and horoscopes as more reference material for your character development.
Take some personality quizzes
When I say take some personality quizzes, I don’t mean some shallow Buzzfeed quizzes (though they are good for some trivial details for characters), I am talking about the Myers-Briggs test on 16personalities (I am a turbulent INFJ). Quizzes like these give in-depth information on your personality, such as your strengths, weaknesses, how you may function in certain careers, what your ideal relationship would look like, and how you might interact with your children. All this information is perfect for developing your characters. Take the quiz as if you were the character. It will put your character in a variety of situations, and it forces you to decide how your character would react. At the end of the quiz, you’ll get to see what your character’s personality type is, as well as a wealth of information about that personality type that you can then apply to your character. If you use the 16personalities quiz, you can also see who else shares a personality type with your character (including fictional people). This can be a great wealth of information, and it is free!
Develop the side characters/supporting characters
Again, this may be a no-brainer, but it is worth repeating: your side characters and supporting cast are just as important as your main character. Give your main character someone to interact with. The decisions of your side cast will affect how your main character develops. Develop the side cast, too, and they can help pack your work with a great emotional punch. For example: Is the main character’s mother kind? Is she a bit overprotective? Does your character love their mother? How do they react when she’s around? If the mother is a character, develop the mother, and that will give some insight into your character’s life and their personality. Same goes for any side character. The actions of the people around your main character are going to help develop your main character, so develop those people.
Give your main character a range of emotions
Having a lead character that is always depressed or is always happy isn’t that realistic. Giving your characters highs and lows makes that character more realistic. Think about people you have met or have seen on TV. There are people who have extremely rough lives, but who are still happy. There are people who have grand, enriching lives who go through depressive episodes. We need to see the lows and the highs. We need to see them when they are jealous, angry, etc. Giving a wealth of emotions helps the reader understand what your character values, what their limits are, and helps ground them. Giving them a wealth of emotions also helps develop an emotional connection to your character. If we know what life was like when they were happy, then we can see how far they have fallen. If we know what life was like when they were sad, then we can see how hard they have worked to get where they are now. It makes the reader believe in your character. Give the character some chances to show a wide range of emotion. If you’d like to pack an emotional punch, check out my tips and tricks on how to do that.
Try roleplaying with your character
If you have ever been into anime or into fantasy stuff, you have probably heard of roleplaying, OCs, Mary-Sues, Gary-Stus, fandom, etc. If you haven’t heard of these things, let me explain:
- OC = Original Character, or a character that does not exist in a pre-existing universe. For example, Johnny Pumpernickle is not a character in Harry Potter, but he is a character I have created to exist in that universe.
Mary-Sues and Gary-Stus are insulting names attributed to OCs or characters. The name infers that an OC is not unique, may be stereotypical, and is not interesting overall.
- Fandom is a culmination of fans around a form of media. For example, there is the Harry Potter fandom, the Naruto fandom, the Post Malone fandom, etc.
- Finally, roleplaying, in the context of OCs, means to meet up with others who have also created OCs for a specific fandom/universe, and going back and forth creating threads of stories, fanfictions, etc. For example, I am roleplaying as Johnny Pumpernickle. My friend is roleplaying as Turtle Jenkins. Both characters live within the Harry Potter universe. I am going to create a situation where Johnny Pumpernickle may meet Turtle Jenkins at Hogwarts. It may look something like this
Me: Johnny Pumpernickle is walking down a corridor at Hogwarts. Sweat is beading on his brow as he rushes past the various classrooms, awkwardly clutching a variety of large tomes to his chest. He is conscious of other students watching him, but the stress of not knowing where is going overpowers the social anxiety that always lingers at the back of his mind.
My friend: Turtle Jenkins is standing just outside of his class, listening to his peers talk about what they are going to do later in their respective house commons. Turtle is about to suggest they sneak out when he sees a blurred figure rounding the corridor. He focuses his attention on the figure and finds it to be what he can only assume is a 1st year, sweaty and obviously panicking. He mumbles to his peers to get their attention and nod in the student’s general direction.
from there, we would go back and forth until we felt we had completed whatever story we wanted to create, and that would be the end of our roleplaying session.
Try joining some roleplay groups in fandoms that you enjoy. There are roleplay groups on Facebook, Google+, tumblr, Reddit, etc. Find one, pick a fandom you know about, and then jump in and roleplay with some people. There are also OC critique groups where you can give a background summary of your OC and people will critique them. The roleplay community is typically super open, and you may just make some good connections through it. Give it a try. Who knows? When you publish your book, these friends you made may start a fandom around your work.
So, what do you think? Is there anything on the list you disagree with? Anything else you can suggest that might help other writers? Comment below and let me know.