Lying And Stalking
You might have a good story but if your character is flat it can ruin it all. After all, who cares about a boring character? Make them likable or don’t, just don’t make them boring. You want to make them cool or funny or someone you love to hate. You want to make them so awesome you wish they were real but sadly, they aren’t. They are the best friend you never had. The girl you wished you dated growing up. Or the Mom you always wanted. Crafting good characters is essential to telling a well-rounded story. Without them, you end up with a puzzle missing key pieces.
So how do you craft a good character? It’s really not hard. If you like to lie (or embellish the truth) or if you enjoy judging/assuming things about people on looks alone (it’s called people watching try it, it's fun) then you’re on your way. While many people might think these are negative traits to have in a person, for a writer they are great. Why? When you lie you are creating your version of something you want or wish was real. When you assume something about a person it’s the building blocks of a potentially great character that can star in your upcoming novel. Even if it’s just taking note of the weird or horrible clothing and hair choices, these things can pull readers in because it makes your story feel real. Observations like all the women wearing unflattering workout wear when they aren’t working out can add humor to a story or have a reader shaking their head thinking wow they are so right. Why is everyone suddenly wearing jogging gear when they are grocery shopping?
For example, there is a guy I often see walking around the city. He is in his early twenties and has a shaved head and an intense stare. He often wears a trench coat, sometimes big headphones, and seems to be out of sync with everyone. One time I was waiting to cross the street and I saw him on the other side. He began jaywalking and was forced to wait in the middle of the street for a passing car. While waiting he crouched down as he if he were getting ready to leap into the air. He didn’t he just stood up and kept walking. He also seems to wave to people who are not there.
So you get the picture the guy is weird. I also know nothing about him but love to pretend that I do. What does such a weird guy do in his free time? My partner and I have decided he must be a time-traveling bounty hunter/vampire/drug dealer of sorts. Sometimes we see other similarly dressed men with the same intense stare, we assume they are assassins sent to search for him. I like to think he writes insane rantings on the walls of his house and probably does mass amounts of psychedelics. I often wonder if he sees me around as much as I see him. Does he ever think I’m following him? Let’s hope not because sometimes I am.
Being curious about people is also key to creating good characters. I’m curious about where this guy lives, if he has a job, and how can such an odd person function in our society. He has to be from the future, right? Who knows. What I do know is I like to draw on these assumptions I’ve made about strangers and use them to create interesting, offbeat, weird, or even unlikeable characters.
Ask the Opposite Sex
One of the worst most cringe-worthy things is to start a book and realize the female character is horrible, as in no real woman would act that way. She is badly written. Of course, women can write bad female characters but most often it's men who write horrible female characters, this seems to be especially true for horror writers.
Horror writers often fall into the trap of either a) creating characters that were just made to suffer and die. If this is the case they make them either shallow or unlikely or overly sympathetic to the point of pathetic. How can you care about what happens to them if you hate them? If they feel like a shell of a real person?
Women on the other hand of course can write male characters, but can also fall into the same trap of undercooking the guy so he’s just a bitch, or by making him overly tough to the point of laughable.
When you’re writing a character of the opposite sex and you’re not sure how they would react in a situation, try asking someone of the opposite sex. Just say hey, if a stalker was following you home what would you do? Most of the time, their answer will be pretty straightforward and nowhere near as dramatic as you would think. One time I thought a car was following me home. Did I freak out or cry or get really angry and accost him in the street? No, I just thought shit, is this happening? And just went about my business, keeping a watchful eye on the car. Having your character overreact or react unrealistically can damage them and turn readers off.
Many writers will often write pages about their characters, which is cool because it shows that they care. But the bad news? They put everything they see in their head on the page for the world to read. They overexpose their character so there’s nothing new to learn about them. We know about their childhood, their favorite foods, where they like to shop, and even exactly what they look like. It’s an overshare. Don’t you hate it when you sit down to dinner and the other person just won’t shut up about themselves? And by the end of the night, you’re over it, you just have to get away. Huge character portraits in books can be toxic. They make the reader tired and indifferent and they also slow down the story.
Introduce your character’s traits and habits slowly over the course of the story. And if there is no natural way to refer to their blonde hair or the blue sweater, then just don’t tell us. We don’t need to know everything about a person to like them or care about what happens to them. You just need enough to hook the reader and make them wonder what will this character do next. Or how will they navigate this situation?
Realistic Little Things
Almost all of my characters are based very loosely on real people. Giving your character a habit or two from real life is a great way to make them unique individuals who feel real and act real.
When you give your character realistic traits, even tiny common ones, like anxiety about making a phone call, is a way for people to identify with the character even if they don’t know the character's age, where they grew up, or if the went to Harvard or community college.
They say it’s the little things that matter, and for character building, it's so true. Tiny fragments can add up and naturally form a complicated character that feels as real as your Aunt Bettie.
Adding In Extras
After adding in a few realistic elements that you lifted from observing strangers or from real people you’ve known, you have to ask yourself, is the character done? Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. Thinking about the character as a fully balanced person will help you fill in the holes.
Maybe you’re trying to create a strong female lead or you’re trying to write a love interest and you don’t know where to start. You know a few traits you want them to have but they still feel flat. To fill in the gaps of your female lead, think about the kind of female best friend you wish you had, or think about the ideal girl you want to date. How do they look? Picturing that person in your mind and realizing what makes them attractive, likable, or even ugly to you are great ways to add to your overall character. Plus it makes it more fun to write about someone you who could be real as opposed to some idealized version of a character that not even you believe exists.
Obviously, if you find women who gossip and wear yoga pants when they aren’t doing yoga insufferable, you’re not going to have your female lead do or wear those things. If you wish you had a partner who was tall with long hair, a leather jacket, and gray eyes, add some of those traits in. If you find your main character attractive or likable it’s easier for your supporting character and readers to see them that way too.
By this point, you should have a pretty well-formed character that is ready to go places and do things. If you’re still not sure where to start, just think about it (people can call this a walking meditation but I just call it daydreaming). Taking a walk is a great way to simply think about the character. Do they jaywalk? Or the type who would wear shorts outside on a cold day? Would they give that homeless man spare change if he asked or would they keep walking and presented they didn’t hear him? (If we’re being realistic a lot of people would keep walking or lie and say they didn’t have change. It’s okay if your character embodies traits like this. After all, they are only human. You don’t have to explain your character’s behavior.)
Picturing your character moving through your everyday existence is a way to sort of interact with this fictional character and really breath life into them.
So next time you see a weird guy in a trench coat or a woman wearing a skirt over her face as a veil, observe them and file those weird or interesting traits/looks/actions away for a rainy day.