The Art of Crafting Compelling Characters
An unforgettable character, puny or powerful, frail or frightening, transcends the pages of the very story in which they appear. Their growth and passage through the book is often the biggest takeaway for most readers. Books that are plot-driven instead of character-driven often end up disappointing their readers, as they don’t find characters to relate to or vouch for. A lesser-known fact is that this stands true for works of fiction as well as non-fiction. Although non-fiction is rooted in factual events, incidents and people, it’s equally important to make the characters engaging enough to achieve the desired impression. For the sake of simplicity, in this blog, we’ll stick to the development of fictional characters only.
Before detailing the craft of character work, let’s understand what a story structure is, and the placement of character development in that process.
Some narratives start at the beginning, some in the middle and others right at the end. The order in which you wish to reveal the events of your story is decided by the narrative structure you adopt. Simply put, the structure of a story is a sort of blueprint that determines how a story’s elements get weaved together and presented to the reader. Picking the right framework for your genre (or sub-genre even) is of utmost importance to create the desired effect and to keep your readers hooked. While there are several plot structure alternatives available for writers to use, we will keep it simple by focusing on the most common yet effective one: the Three-Act structure.
What does every story have? A beginning, a middle and an end! The Three-Act structure embodies this well-known fact by splitting the story into three parts as follows:
- The setup: This is where you would set the premise, throw light on an occurrence that has set the story on its course, and introduce one or more central characters.
- The confrontation: This could be fast-paced and full of twists or the slowly progressing yet meaty part of the story where the protagonist faces a conflict that requires them to grow and gain perspective.
- The resolution: This is what concludes the story, and should be a logical yet compelling end to the book. In this section, writers typically have their characters rise above their circumstances and or face a final battle against the antagonist.
If you notice, every stage mentioned above revolves around the character, their goals, ordeals and victories. This is what makes character development such an integral part of the writing process, especially for fiction! One thing for writers to pay extra attention to is the importance of WHY. Why does a character choose to react a certain way? Why is their objective to defeat the antagonist? Establishing the purpose of a story, and the motivation behind characters and their actions is what drives the plot and eventually gains audience attention.
Remember, it is okay to tweak or change some of the finer details, the plot lines or other nuances of the story while adhering to the objective and outline. Sometimes you may have more than one idea for how the book must end, or under what circumstances the protagonist and antagonist meet. Write down all of the possibilities and keep a note of the structure handy, for quick reference. If you use a platform like Pencil, you could avail the option to maintain separate notes while drafting your manuscript.
Now, coming to the reason why we wrote this in the first place: How can you build memorable personas that will blow your readers’ minds? While a lot of it depends on the writer’s intuition and creativity, some fundamental ingredients go into concocting remarkable characters! Also, readers should be able to unravel your character layer by layer, rather than all at once. Naturally, this requires you to build them that way by gradually fleshing out the intricacies, adding complexities, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
Here’s a breakdown of the character development process that you could mimic for your book:
- Roles of characters: There are primarily seven kinds of characters that make their way into the most notable works of fiction.
- Protagonist: The main character and the chief actor of the story, the protagonist is the one that drives the plot. Lesser-known fact: protagonist doesn’t mean hero, they could be an anti-hero or even a villain! A popular example is Sherlock Holmes.
- Antagonist: Often branded as the villain of the story, an antagonist is a central character whose motivating forces work opposite to that of the protagonist’s. Lord Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series, is a well-known antagonist.
- Deuteragonist: These are secondary characters who appear as close company to the main character, but don’t directly influence any significant plotlines. Sam from The Lord of the Rings saga is a good example of a deuteragonist.
- Tertiary characters: These are some extra characters that don’t recur and aren’t crucial to the plot, but need to be part of a fictional story to make it seem genuine. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be made memorable. Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series or the creepy Grady twins from The Shining are great instances of the writers proving just this!
- Love interest: Investigating a romantic angle in a story always incites curiosity and is undoubtedly a necessary element even if it doesn’t contribute to the main narrative. It’s even better when the relationship isn’t straightforward or predictable, and there’s something of a back and forth happening between the characters involved; for instance, enemies to lovers, second chances at love, etc. For example, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.
Another angle that writers explore in this category is that of obsessive love. Think of the crazed assassin Villanelle and her “enemy” Eve from the Killing Eve series. Their mutual all-consuming feelings of compulsive love and hate for each other is the leading plot point of the series.
- Foil: The foil is someone whose personality is almost diametrically opposite to the protagonist’s, and often plays a less threatening adversary of the main character. Draco Malfoy, the much despised bully in the Harry Potter books, is an example of a foil.
- Confidant: These are usually the people who are the main character’s closest friends. They could assume the role of a mentor, a potential love interest or most commonly, a sidekick! Robin (of Batman and Robin) is a confidant who assumes the role of Batman’s sidekick.
Remember, every character need not transform dramatically over the course of the book. Besides character roles, writers also assign something known as a character quality which classifies characters based on the degree of change or transformation they experience in the book. We’ll help you understand this a little better in the next point.
2. Character arc is NOT always necessary: Like we mentioned earlier, characters can remain somewhat unchanged too, and don’t necessarily have to undergo a tremendous personality shift. The character quality examines the nature of a person in the book, their character arc and how they evolve through the story. Five character types stem out of this categorization:
- Static: Also known as a flat character, these are the ones that don’t undergo noticeable changes through the story. Sherlock Holmes, as exceptional and eccentric as he is, happens to be a flat character!
- Dynamic: The most compelling sort of character is the kind that displays a dramatic personality change through the book. Dynamic characters could evolve into admirable awe-inspiring heroes, or even devolve into vengeful villains! Scout Finch, the junior protagonist from To Kill a Mockingbird is dynamic as she experiences emotional growth through the book.
- Round: Round characters are similar to dynamic ones in the sense that they transform over the course of the narrative. The main difference is that they exhibit multi-dimensional characteristics with the ability to change or evolve even before any triggers cause that change. The writer usually reveals this to the audience early on. Another aspect that sets them apart is that they exhibit what can be considered duality in their personalities, in the sense that they have a combination of good and bad traits. This is what makes them compelling yet realistic. The remarkable Albus Dumbledore, from the Harry Potter series, is a round character.
- Stock: A writer introduces these characters to establish a sense of familiarity and recognition by modelling them around known archetypes. For instance, a kind-faced wizened person would typically portray a mentor-like role. Another example is a rebellious character resembling a funky haired girl who acts out as a result of a difficult childhood or not fitting into societal norms. Remember, the trick is to have a limited number of stock characters and not overdo the archetyping lest they seem uninteresting, predictable or downright offensive. Prince Charming is a fairy tale handsome, evil-fighting, princess-saving stock character who must fight dark forces and rescue the damsel-in-distress.
- Symbolic: A symbolic character stands for something much larger than themselves, and can be used to convey an important message to the reader in a subtle manner. Again, it would be best if you were careful while creating them so that they don’t seem too preachy or holier-than-thou. Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, is a lion who is meant to symbolize God.
3. Skeletal persona of your central characters: Once you’ve chalked out a list of prominent persons and their development through the book, it’s time to start building their personalities! Start by visualizing every critical character’s physical appearances, superficial characteristics, distinctive mannerisms, etc. Pay attention to the little details, even if they may seem trivial at this point. Suppose your book has a character that hails from a different country than yours, say France. Rather than making up a name and being uncertain of its authenticity, you could use a tool like https://www.worldnamegenerator.com/ which allows you to apply a region-wise filter (French in this case) and generate a random name accordingly. There are a variety of tools available that help you with other aspects of a character’s profile. Take a look at The Character Creator which is a fun tool that helps you build the physical traits of your characters, right from gender to eye colour to choosing whether or not they have freckles! Another one you could check out is the RanGen Personality Generator which gives you the option to choose “simple” for a basic outline of your character’s personality or “detailed” to go deeper and construct the inner mechanism of their being.
Another thing to consider is the personality type of your character. Decades ago, the Myers-Briggs test, named after its inventors, was designed to identify a person’s personality type, strengths, and preferences based on a self-assessment. It evaluates individuals based on aspects of their personality, like whether they’re extroverted or introverted, thinkers or feelers, etc. Based on the answers provided by an individual, the test assigns one out of 16 personality types to them. For a writer, it’s a great way to step into the shoes of their characters, study their personality traits, answer relevant questions and assign any one of these 16 types. You could even take the test yourself, to make this easier!
4. Goals, motivations, aspirations and challenges: Here is where you address the “WHY” behind your character’s key actions or behaviours. What or whom are they fighting for or against, and why? This holds good for the antagonist as well! Without unique aspirations and challenges to live by, your characters would end up lacking depth. Give your characters a powerful back story, and your readers a glimpse into past life experiences that have shaped your story’s actors into who they are. Remember, this must be in sync with the overall personality and character arcs you’ve given to the key figures in your story.
5. Emphasize on their weaknesses as much as their strengths: Making a character seem “too perfect” can be a huge mistake! Nobody would relate to that, mainly because it seems somewhat unrealistic. A character’s strengths, as well as shortcomings, are together responsible for the path they take in their lives, and you must make this evident. This piece on character development provides some helpful insights on giving your character flaws.
6. Internal and external conflict: Conflict lies at the core of every narrative, and it is equally important to emphasize external as well as internal battles that a character could face. An external conflict usually takes the conventional Protagonist vs Antagonist style where the antagonist could be a person, an institution, a society or anything else that holds values that contradict that of the protagonist’s. Internal conflicts are where the character struggles to overcome their own inhibitions and fears to accomplish their goals. An internal confrontation could also occur when a person, inspired or coaxed by the events that transpire in a story, finds themselves contemplating their own belief systems, hidden desires, and ambitions.
7. Incorporating diverse characters realistically: Portraying a heterogeneous mix of people is a great way to be inclusive in your written work, but it can hurt your cause if not done correctly. It is imperative that you responsibly represent diverse personas and diversity as such. You must avoid stereotyping or generalizing based on your limited knowledge or exposure to people belonging to various races or communities. Learn how to create these characters accurately. In addition to that, once you complete your final manuscript, get sensitivity readers (a kind of beta reader) to verify that your work is free of cultural inaccuracies, racial prejudices, etc.
With this, you have yourself an arsenal of character and personality types to pick from. Open your mind, experiment with a variety of options and play out your lead characters, their dialogues, desires and dilemmas in your head to see what you love and hate about them! Give the people a colourful mix of delightful as well despicable characters, but above anything else, create them in a way that makes them immortal in the minds of your readers.