It’s not always easy for creative writers to develop believable characters for their short stories or novels. Most of us don’t have close relationships with dashing heroes named Buck or brilliant, beautiful medical examiners named Desiree—which makes it tempting to take inspiration from people we actually know. But too often the resulting characters are thinly disguised versions of ourselves, our friends, and relatives. These protagonists can fall flat in fiction. So how do writers develop interesting and intriguing yet believable characters?
Your wacky aunt Mabel may be a hoot at holiday get-togethers, but as anything more than a minor comic relief character, Aunt Mabel is going to be an unlikely heroine. It might be better to enlist the scary guy who lives down the street and develop a villain (or an unlikely hero) based on him. Sure, all you know about him is that he rides a loud motorcycle, and his biceps are frighteningly large and tattooed, but boring he’s not!
For the purposes of character development, you can safely assume that Biker Dude isn’t the son of two college professors, he probably doesn’t attend the opera on a regular basis, and he isn’t likely to be shy. It’s more realistic to assume he’s the son of working-class parents, prefers football to the opera, and is pretty tough. And if we’re working on avoiding stereotypes (which is usually our goal), this character could surprise us and become an unlikely hero, despite the prison tats.
The personality needs to fit the fiction. If you’re looking for a hero to save the world from destruction, you can choose the dashing and dapper John Q. College Graduate with broad shoulders and a deep, calm voice, or the scruffy biker dude, who saves the day despite his looks. If you want Aunt Mabel to be the heroine of your novel, you better develop some interesting traits that would support her superhero ways—perhaps she’s not as frail and wobbly as she looks! Just don’t leave Aunt Mabel exactly the way she is in real life, or her character may fail to deliver.
Get to know your characters and make them three-dimensional. Be familiar enough to be able to predict what each character would do if he or she were faced with a certain choice or put into a certain situation. Every person has a darker side or a secret. Give the warmhearted schoolteacher a secret vice, a bit of a temper, or a scandalous past. When you’re sketching your character, include a basic history, his/her dreams and ambitions, obstacles and hurdles, social status, and sexual and economic power. Also include physical characteristics so that you can make sure Desiree stays a redhead throughout her adventures and Biker Dude’s tattoos stay on the correct shoulder.
The short story presents a different problem. There simply isn’t time or space to let the reader get to know your main character, so you have to present as much information as the reader needs to know, succinctly and subtly (show, don’t tell!). If it’s not relevant to the plot, we don’t need to know that the schoolteacher is allergic to shellfish or has a degree in Russian literature. We might, however, need to know that she’s a closet smoker, addicted to chocolate truffles, and harbors a long-standing grudge with her sister. For the short story writer, it’s essential to have a fully developed character in mind; but rather than giving us a bulleted list of traits, let your character’s actions demonstrate who she is. Hold back a secret or two and surprise the reader.
As writers, we are asking our readers to visualize our characters and relate to them. We want our characters to be realistic so that our audience can connect to them—we want the reader to cheer them on as they surmount obstacles and shed a tear when they fall. Readers care about people, and a fantastic plot populated with bland or one-dimensional characters isn’t enough to hold their interest. Your audience should feel involved with your characters so that they become vivid and real people. And this isn’t easy. If you can get your readers to fall in love with the scary biker dude, you can consider him a successful character.