Now there’s the challenge. How do you write a story with not just a great plot, but convincing, relevant, organic, palpable characters that seem just as real as any movie character on the big screen, or even the girl that sits next to you in class . . . you know, the really cute one with the interesting scar above her right eye?
It’s all about the little things, not just the obvious traits. So, the technique here is a lot like creating believable dialogue. If you want to make it easier on yourself, just observe people around you for bit; that’s a good start. Take note of not just their appearance, but also their personality quirks, their compulsions, their tics. Does Jim have a slight stutter, or does Sarah constantly bite her bottom lip when she’s about to tell a lie? Pride issues, timidity, aggressive tendencies . . . these are all things that make a character so much more than just a dark scary man wearing a flowing black cloak, cackling maniacally—someone who is clearly evil. If there’s anything the world needs less of, it’s flat characters . . . and maybe the Kardashians.
What makes a flat character, you ask? Well, any character who lacks development and doesn’t need it (because they’re not worth it); a character that is either an archetype of good, evil, or some other emotional value. They usually take the form of the mustache-twirling villain or the hero on an epic quest that knows exactly what to do and say no matter what the situation. No one is that cut and dry in real life, and no one should be in your stories either; unless it’s satire, then by all means go ahead. It could be humorous.
Characters, Like Onions (lots of layers)
A good example of a character with some real, well . . . character, would be Professor Snape from Harry Potter. At first, you think he’s just going to be another one of Harry’s numerous antagonists throughout the series. After all, from their first meeting, there is nothing to him. He’s just that one teacher who seems to have an innate hatred for Harry.
As the story unfolds, you learn that what first appeared as blatant dislike is actually a front to protect Harry, that Snape used to be in love with Harry’s late mother and as a sort of debt to her memory, he has vowed to go so far as to defame himself and pretend to ally himself with the Dark Lord only to give Harry the chance to defeat him. It’s very complicated, but the fact is, the “bad guy” is not a bad guy at all, but rather an unfriendly good guy who is motivated by love. That sort of character demands some measure of respect and even sympathy.
If you’re ever in doubt of whether your characters are multidimensional, ask yourself this simple question: Can you love and hate them at the same time? Can you see part of yourself, however small, in them? If yes, then congrats! You’ve created a wonderful character for your story. Taking the time to be subjective and consider these things could be the difference between a character your audience gets attached to and one of the out-of-focus extras walking around in the background of a scene.
Your character should be compelling enough that even though there may be a zombie virus outbreak in the background, and the crowd is panicking—in short, lots of distractions—your character is the only thing the audience truly cares about. And how that character reacts in any given situation will only add to everything we know about them. In most cases, actions speak louder than words. Be mindful of your dialogue, but be deliberate with your actions.
For instance, don’t just throw a sex scene in a story because you feel like it’s obligatory, or that it will make your characters seem more real . . . ahem, ahem Game of Thrones. It adds nothing to your character (except for some extra texture *smirks*). However, the way a character shies away from touch could say volumes about their past experiences, most likely dark ones, which the viewer may never fully come to know (and they don’t need to know; that’s the beauty of good dialogue coupled with competent acting). What’s inferred by a simple action—like when a coworker innocently sneaks up behind Sarah the Waitress at Fridays, and taps her on the shoulder, and she jerks away violently—that’s the development. We can only assume that she does not like being touched, and for good reasons. Sometimes it’s better that we don’t know why, but can assume. The point is, by making Sarah the Waitress react in this manner, she has now become so many shades deeper as a character.
So Say We All
One more character, a personal favorite of mine, is Admiral Adama from the show Battlestar Galactica . . . What? Don’t Laugh. Even people that are not interested in science fiction can find things (and plenty of them) to take away from this spectacular space drama. The character development is some of the best I’ve ever seen, and as for the “Old Man” as he’s called on the show, he’s one of the best.
The series opens up with the seasoned commander about to give a speech during the decommissioning ceremony of the spaceship he’s commanded for the last couple decades, the famed relic-of-a-starship, Battlestar Galactica. From the start, it’s obvious that the commander cares not for ceremonies and press hubbub; he just wants to retire in peace and get the media crews off his ship.
The future president of the colonies, Laura Roslin, is also present for the proceedings. She makes a comment that it would make things easier for people to learn the lay of the ship if everything was networked. Adama vehemently refuses, saying he “[doesn't] care . . . It’s an integrated computer network and [he] won’t have it on this ship.” It becomes exceedingly clear that Adama is a relic from the past himself, and his simple, functional ship, needs nothing more than a reliable crew, good guns, and a sturdy hull to operate. Very old-fashioned. We love this. It’s a precaution, which saves their lives later on in the series.
Before the ceremony, there’s another noteworthy scene that takes place in the captain’s quarters between Adama and his executive officer, Saul Tigh.
Here is an excerpt of their discourse:
Been drinking a lot lately.
This have anything to do with...
My wife? Why, just because she’s sleeping with half the population of Geminon while I’m away. Nah, doesn’t have anything to do with her.
Adama sips his coffee for a beat.
Well, I doubt Starbuck’s gonna ask for a court either. Lucky for you, considering your record.
Doesn’t matter. I’m getting out anyway.
There a chance you’ll change your mind? The Fleet needs men like you, Saul.
Like hell. You’re the only sonuvabitch in the whole fleet dumb enough to want me as XO.
Now you see why they’re putting me out to pasture.
I did wonder.
The two old friends share a brief smile, then Adama takes a deep breath.
All right. Ceremony’s at fourteen hundred. Be there on time, in a fresh uniform and clean-shaven.
Adama nods, the meeting over. Tigh heads for the door, then pauses.
Has Lee reported aboard yet?
Adama doesn’t answer for a long moment.
Three hours ago.
Maybe you should...
He’ll contact me when he’s ready.
And so, from this brief exchange we’ve established a couple of things that will stick with us throughout the course of the series: An age-old friendship between the two men, good friends that know and love each other, and aren’t afraid to call each other out; the smile they share hits home this idea perfectly; age is insinuated by their casual attitude in regard to their duties, and with that, experience; and respect, both in friendship and formally.
What’s more, Tigh goes on to ask Adama about his estranged son, Lee. Just by the pause, the way he answers plainly, and Tigh’s friendly chide that he should probably try to make amends with his son; the way Adama cuts him off as if to say, “I don’t need to be told what to do, it hurts, but this is just how it is,” there’s a whole flurry of emotions and character communicated. We understand that there is pain in his life, but we also understand that somewhere in time beforehand, he’s done his part in confronting it. He can’t do anymore. And we see him as a man who can accept the things he can’t change, including his broken relationship with his son. Additionally, we see that he is wise and patient enough to allow Lee to make the next move in reconciling their issues. Wow! What a character, and that’s all established within a few sentences and during the first half an hour of the show. With people like this, there’s so much to look forward to.
It’s not hard to hack it, but it does take some extra thought. Take time crafting characters. You’re creating life, in a sense.