Writing well-developed characters is hard. Personally, I find it one of the hardest things to get right because, well, humans are complicated, aren’t they? Here are a few ways to lift those characters off the page.
1. Character profiles
Before I put fingers to keyboard on any writing project, I create my character profiles. [OK, that’s a white lie. I usually write thousands of words before realising I don’t know who my characters really are, and then I get down to the profiles… but if I listened to my own advice I’d do this at the beginning – it would save a lot of time.]
Character profiles can be whatever you make them but the more detailed they are, the better-developed your characters will be. I start with the basics: name, age, likes, dislikes, appearance, family members/relationships, accent or way of speaking, etc. I then move onto strengths, weaknesses, wants and needs, and random personal details. Each project is different and I think of new categories to add each time. One of my favourite categories is noting down characters’ fears or worries and these fall into several mini-categories: fears that are out in the open – all the other characters know about them; fears that the character hasn’t told anyone; fears that the character doesn’t even know they have. In fact, breaking each category down into what your character knows and what they don’t know is a great way of discovering what motivates them. Not everything in your profile needs to make it onto the page. I love noting characters’ secrets – often these secrets are never told but they help me to understand why a character behaves in a certain way.
So you’ve got your profile – you know your character inside out and can predict exactly how they will react in certain situations. Great!
Or maybe not. You might have a character who is always energetic and makes quick and irrational decisions or one who is suffering from anxiety and is very cautious, but if your characters consistently act in the way you expect them to then the story becomes predictable and possibly even a bit relentless. Instead, let the characters surprise you.
To give my characters a chance to step outside their usual habits I invent totally bizarre situations that have nothing to do with the story and I have fun writing a few different scenes. For example, how would energetic Sophie act if she hadn’t slept for three nights? How would broke Leo feel if he won the lottery? What if Jack had a completely worry-free day? Would he make a snap-decision? Once you’ve got a few scenes with your characters acting completely out of character, you can then think about reasons within your story for why they might act in this way. Even if the scenes are completely nonsensical, I often end up with at least a few lines that I can work back into the overall story to show the characters in a different light.
3. Let your characters show each other off
This depends on your chosen point of view but the most important thing to remember is that none of your characters will present/describe themselves in their entire or true form. If they do, I’d say that’s very suspicious! (Or you’ve chosen to tell your story using third person omniscient).
One of your characters could have a really quirky/dark/annoying/lovely character trait but have no idea about it or maybe they know but they’re in denial. Perhaps they just keep their cards close to their chest. In each of these cases, you’ll need one of your other characters to notice and subtly point it out to the reader, either through dialogue, internal thought, a discreet eyebrow waggle J or a narrator. All your characters are observers – let them people-watch away!
Since her twin brother, Eddie, drowned five years ago, sixteen-year-old Elsie Main has tried to remember what really happened that fateful day on the beach. One minute Eddie was there, and the next he was gone. Seventeen-year-old Tay McKenzie is a cute and mysterious boy that Elsie meets in her favorite boathouse hangout. When Tay introduces Elsie to the world of freediving, she vows to find the answers she seeks at the bottom of the sea.