Hey there. You. No, you… with the laptop open. And you… with the pen in hand… Stop that. Stop right now. You should read this before going any further. Are you making your characters the best they can be? The other day, I wrote a post about the Ten (unheard of) Rules for Writing. Did you read it?
Go ahead. We’ll wait.
Okay. So now that you’ve read those, let me bend your ear a bit and whisper something into it. You ready? Alright. Listen carefully. Maybe you should tell them.
Okay. I’m not scared. If you’re reading this, chances are your characters can be improved.
There. He said it. How many characters have you read that come across one dimensional? Boring? Lame? What? You can’t remember? My point exactly. If they were great characters, you’d remember them.
So in the spirit of last week’s successful post, here are my rules for creating amazing characters that you love or love to hate.
- Get to know what makes them different as a group. Every character comes from a different place. A different region. A different time. Especially in Sci-fi, this is vital. An absolute amazing example of this is The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey.
They have three main sides:
- Earth, that’s us. We’re built bigger (higher gravity tends to do that), but we also take everything for granted. Hell, we have all the air and water we need, and we have evolved in this environment, so that makes it perfect for us. We are healthy, strong, and wealthy.
- Mars, our next home in space. They have their own accent, come across more guarded, and are extremely militaristic. The show put it best with (and I’m paraphrasing here) “For those that spend their whole lives growing up under a dome, the idea of an ocean is impossible”. Your characters need to know why they are different.
- Belters are the other extreme of the spectrum. If the Martians have it bad, the belters face impossible odds. Furthest from Earth in the asteroid belts and tiny moons, they have a dialect that’s almost incomprehensible. They also have the largest obstacles in front of them. They have to rely on Earth and Mars for food, water, and air, and what do Earth and Mars do? They exploit them for ice and minerals from the belt, creating a common resentment against anyone that grew up in gravity.
Distinguish between the different places your characters grew up in, and you’re already ahead of the game.
- Get to know what makes them different as individuals. In my current manuscript, I have a character that’s in the military. She doesn’t know what it’s like to live on the outer fringes of manned space, not governed by the politics and laws of the inner planets. This leads to quite the entertaining conversation for her, and also defines her more as a character.
What about their personal lives? Do they talk about it? Did they have a good childhood? Do they still believe in Santa Clause? Interview your character. I’m serious. Put yourself into an interview chair, and ask your characters more questions than Oprah. I bet they surprise you.
- What are their flaws? Let’s face it. None of us are perfect. Do they have a handicap? What scares them? Who has helped them through everything. My favorite character in cartoons is Vegeta. The dude is straight up a badass. His weakness is also one thing he refuses to give up: His Pride.
What is the one thing that makes your character different than anyone else?
- What’s their back story? So you’ve just introduced us to this awesome new character in chapter two. Do you know what she has been through before the events of the story? You may think it doesn’t matter, but it does. Who broke her heart to make her so guarded? Who killed his brother? Who squished his pet frog or dropped his pet rock off the side of the boat? Those things defined your characters life.
- Did you follow the rule? Did you make all your characters White, English speaking, God-fearing men? Uhoh. Didn’t you know that everyone is a white dude? Oh? They’re not? Then don’t make your all your characters white, or men, or straight, or American, or Christian. The best parts about life are what makes us different. We all know somebody of different ethnicities, religion, ages, sexualities, and sexes. Diverse your characters, and ABSOLUTELY be respectful about it.
- Get their dialogue right. You should be able to know which one of your characters said something based off of how it was said. We do not all speak like this. Gary Coleman would take a script that said What are you doing? and it would come out Whatcha doin? Do they have an accent? Then write the damn accent. Do they have a slur, stutter or other speech impediment? Then wri… wri.. write it. You’re not making fun of anyone. You’re creating a character that is believable.
- Do they know each other? I have characters that have first and last names. Depending on who’s talking to them, sometimes get called by both, or either. I have a character named Jonathan Nolan. Another character never calls him by his name. He calls him Jo-No. By having a nickname that only one or two other characters use, you portray a history between them that makes everyone else feel like an outsider.
- Make them matter. Even your secondary characters need to be unique and memorable. Again, James S. A. Corey does an amazing job at this. They have a character, Amos Burton, who isn’t a main character, but damn it, they sure as hell make you wish he was. He even has his own novella that explains his back story. There are few main characters in any other book as well defined and memorable as Amos is in The Expanse.
My mottos is Every character is the main character in their own story. Don’t make them secondary to anyone.
- Give them secrets. Not everyone needs to know everything about your characters. Your characters don’t need to know everything about each other. Make your characters mysterious. Let them pull out the “I don’t wanna talk about it” line and see how your other characters react and respond.
- Make them tick. What motivates them. Your team may all be on the same side, but they should all have different motives. How do your characters react differently in the same situation? What is their driving need that they stay focused on throughout the whole manuscript?
I have a character who’s sole drive is to kill his own father. I know. Dark, huh? The main plot is still happening, but it’s this need that pushes him through the story. Another character is out to prove his manhood, and another is trying to catch them both. All of that works together and twists in and out of the main plot. Like a rope, your story is strongest when everything connects and intertwines with everything else. Break one thing, or leave it just running parallel, and it loses strength.
These are my rules for creating characters. As I said last week, not all rules are for everyone. Read them, find what works for you, and save the rest for another day.
If you have a rule not mentioned above, share it in the comments. I’d love to hear it.