Have you heard of Huckleberry Finn? He’s been an unforgettable character since 1884. Memorable characters are what make stories great. They feel like real people, making the reader care about what happens to them.
You can have an engaging plot, cool stuff that happens, and tons of conflict, but if you don’t have a great character the readers can care about, your story is lacking. Love them or hate them, readers want to care about your characters.
Make Your Characters Jump Off the Page
For the characters to pull the reader into the story, they need to feel like real people. Your characters need to be three-dimensional with a personality, a past, a family, secrets, a job, friends, and hopes and dreams. A good way to do this is to answer these four basic questions:
- Who are they?
- What do they want?
- What’s standing in the way?
- What’s the worst that could happen if they don’t get it?
Once you figure these out, you can move forward in making them feel more like real people. Add motivations, coping mechanisms, values, and flaws. Real people are flawed. Your characters should be too.
10 Tips to Create Memorable Fictional Characters
There is no perfect way to create a memorable character for your story. I searched high and low for the one thing that would make my characters feel like real people that jump off the page and grab the reader by the collar. I didn’t find one way; I found hundreds. The top ten are:
- A good name. Naming your characters is important. You want them to have a name your readers will identify with, one that’s easy to pronounce, and that fits the time and setting of your story.
- Physical description. Even though we all like to read about good looking people, no one is perfect. Everyone has a lock of hair that won’t fall the right way or a scar or a badly placed mole they hate. Give your characters a physical flaw they don’t like about themselves. Introducing your characters’ descriptions can be tricky, so I wrote an article on how to maintain the POV with character descriptions. Inserting large chunks of your characters’ appearance is a death sentence to the pace and flow of a story.
- Goals, needs, and desires. Readers care about characters who want something and have to overcome conflict to get it.
- Actions speak louder than words. As you go through your day, pick a few situations and put your character in them. How would they react? What would they say? What action do they take to achieve their goal? How do they treat the people around them? How do the other characters in the story treat them and behave around them?
- Give your good guy some traits readers can love. Readers like characters who:
- are modest
- keep their promises
- have goals they can sympathize with
- have a strong moral compass to keep them from crossing the line, but are not immune to breaking the rules
- have fears they can overcome
- Give your bad guys some traits readers can hate. If they dislike your villain, they care what happens to them. Readers dislike characters who:
- are unreliable
- don’t care when they break promises
- are selfish
- panic under pressure
- tell lies
Keep in mind that good characters who are too good, bad characters who are too bad, and pretty characters who are too attractive are boring.
- A contradiction. Give your characters contradictions. Even good guys who are always nice, going out of their way to put others first, are sometimes rude and short-tempered. Even bad guys have something redeeming about them – maybe they take good care of their mother or they take-in stray cats.
- Dialogue. The way a character speaks can show a lot about them. Do they have an accent? How do they phrase things? Dialogue can be used to give backstory, describe a setting, and give your character’s emotion.
- Conflict. Realistic characters with problems will make your readers care about them more. A three-dimensional character has inner and external conflicts, things that prevent them from reaching their goals and living their dream. Fears, their past, family, a disability, current events, and other characters are all good fodder for conflict.
- A secret. Everyone has a secret. Give your character a secret to create drama.
Bring Your Characters to Life
It’s the little things in life that make us human. What we do when we are nervous, happy, angry and how those emotions make us feel. Some people fiddle with their clothing, smooth their hair, talk with their hands, and tons of other actions. So should your character. Not every move they make, that’s overkill. A couple of sentences here and there, sprinkled throughout the scene helps the readers see the characters as real people.
The Five Senses
Creating fictional characters the readers will care about depends on how close you let us get. Using emotion, thoughts, and the five senses brings us closer, creating a character we can care about.
Whiskers strolled into the room. His meow echoed through the empty space, and he bumped Sally’s elbow. She smiled at his subtle, time-honored hint to scratch behind his ears. He pressed his soft, furry head into her hand, and the tension of the day washed out of her.
When Sally smiles, it brings us closer to her because only she knows why. The addition of, “He pressed his soft, furry head into her hand, and the tension of the day washed out of her.” brought us closer still with touch and emotion.
Creating memorable characters helps them withstands the test of time. When your characters feel like they could live down the street, invite you for a beer, or break into your house, readers will feel emotional about them.
Here is another great article on Joanna Penn’s site, The Creative Penn about making your characters feel more real.
A profile worksheet is extremely helpful in fleshing out your characters and making them three-dimensional. I have two different profile worksheets on my Creating Characters tab.