Long after the last page of a story, memorable characters often live on in the minds of readers. Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch, Holly Golightly, Harry Potter – protagonists such as these have become identifiable entities outside of the worlds in which they were created, proving that a well-crafted character can survive long after the author put pen to paper. So how do writers create characters that readers will love? What can an author do to flesh out the most important actors in a story and then turn them into living, breathing beings that engender sympathy, admiration, or any of the other qualities needed to make the reader identify? There are many ways to flesh out your characters and construct believable personalities, but here are three tried-and-true guidelines I try to keep in mind when developing characters in my stories.
Make your characters complex. It’s usually not enough to have just the good girl, the villain, the funny person and so forth. And even though physical traits are important as well, readers tend to want more than mere description, especially when it comes to novels. The reader craves multidimensional beings, so your characters should have the complexities of a real living person. This means their dreams, fears, loves, interests, desires, life histories, and other details can all be used to flesh out the person you’re creating. In The Great Gatsby, for example, Jay Gatsby is much more than just the rich man in the story. He’s a self-made individual with a checkered past, social ambition and a dangerous love entanglement. By the same token, readers of To Kill a Mockingbird quickly discover that Atticus Finch is more than just an Alabama lawyer; he’s a single father who knows how to use a gun and a man who stands on principle as well. Characters such as these are not only believable, they also win over the reader in such a way that he or she is willing to make an emotional investment in the story and stick with it till the end.
Make your characters flawed. Nobody really likes a Little Goody Two-Shoes, do they? Just as in the case of a bad guy with absolutely no redeeming characteristics, readers will tire quickly of protagonists with no imperfections. Flaws are necessary to make characters more human, which renders them much more credible to the reading public in the process. In Gone with the Wind, for instance, Margaret Mitchell gives readers more than just a southern belle in the character of Scarlett O’Hara. In addition to being the spoiled daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, the heroine comes with a whole host of distinguishing and useful personality traits including shrewdness, deceitfulness, manipulativeness and the penchant for always going after the wrong guy at the wrong time. These are hardly edifying traits. But despite all her flaws, readers quickly find themselves sympathizing with Mitchell’s main character and rooting for her as she tries to use every means at her disposal to escape the dire straits in which she finds herself. The same is true for a more recent heroine, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Despite her emotional detachment and harsh veneer, readers have absolutely no problem identifying with the protagonist created by Suzanne Collins. To the contrary it just helps them appreciate the main character’s many virtues in the end. When central characters are flawed, it serves to make their stories all the more interesting.
Make your characters larger than life. Great characters are exaggerated and they do things most of us would never attempt in the real world. As you’re writing, let them be over the top and get noticed by readers. Take, for example, Esteban, the central male character in Isabel Allende’s The House of The Spirits. When things upset him he doesn’t just sulk or get angry, but rather gives into fits of rage and violence that become legendary and make his a memorable character. Just as outlandish celebrities tend to steal the limelight in real life, characters that stand out on the page will stay alive long after the book has been closed. Think of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and how Truman Capote uses her ability to shock, her breeziness, and her flamboyance to create a character that has become an icon of American literature. Despite his meek demeanor and humble stature, Harry Potter becomes a formidable figure thanks to the supernatural back story and the crazy powers J.K. Rowling put at his fingertips. By embellishing their traits, an author can propel a character from the pages and let them soar into realty.
When talking of larger-than-life characters, one that most often comes to my mind is the protagonist of the novel that provides the inspiration for our musings here at literarylabors.com. Whether you love or hate A Confederacy of Dunces, it’s hard to deny that John Kennedy Toole created a very memorable character in the persona of Ignatius Jacques Reilly. Oversized physically, this New Orleans mama’s boy has a personality that is exaggerated as well, one that causes him to become embroiled in a series of outrageous misadventures. In his foreword to the book, Walker Percy explains that Ignatius counts as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” How could a character like this not live on long after the story ends? With his pompous deportment, eccentricities, creative mania, and borderline delusions, not only is Ignatius Jacques Reilly larger than life, he’s also flawed and complex.
We all know that a good story relies on a number of important factors, including an interesting plot. But even when that epic novel you’re writing has the world’s most brilliant plot, not to mention a wonderful setting and flawless writing, the narrative won’t soar if the characters are dull. For many readers, great fiction depends on great characters, and the reason is rather simple. Readers need to care about the story, and to care about the story they need to make a connection with the characters. In some way, the reader needs to identify or sympathize with individuals at the heart of your story so that that they becoming willing to invest their emotions in your work. If your characters are fully developed, the emotional investment will pay off in the end. So make them complex, make them flawed, make them larger than life – and your readers will thank you.