A common issue affecting writers (of fiction and nonfiction, in case you wrongly believe that nonfiction doesn’t need to read like fiction) is the inability to create strong, memorable characters with distinct character traits. Readers are not going to care about a story if they don’t care about the people in the story.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been editing a novel where I get to the end and realize I don’t care one bit about what happens. The plot might be unique and suspenseful, but the lack of impressionable characters ultimately does me in. Whether they live or die makes no difference, and I find myself siding with the antagonist, hoping he or she will kill off the characters I know I should like but honestly just want to die so they will stop annoying me with their lameness. This is a problem, obviously.
Editor and author Sol Stein says this about character description in his book Stein on Writing:
“We need to know the people in the car before we see the car crash. The events of a story do not affect our emotions in an important way unless we know the characters.”
Following are 3 steps to creating a character worth remembering (and caring about after the car crash).
[For the sake of reading ease and because I don’t want to continue using two pronouns, I will use a fictitious character named Kyle.]
1. The Past: Define the Motivation
Ask yourself this: Why do your characters act the way they do?
In order for readers to care about your characters, they need to be more than just two-dimensional names on a page; they need to come alive as real people you can imagine yourself bumping into on the street. (I suppose unless you’re writing a fantasy novel that takes place on the moon, but even then your characters should still be believable.)
Three-dimensional characters are created when you take the time to consider their past. Even though these people were created by you out of thin air, they still need to have history just like anyone else and a motivation for their actions.
Let’s take Kyle, for example. Maybe Kyle’s father left when he was young, which explains why Kyle has trust issues, particularly with men. His motivation is to prove to himself that he doesn’t need a male role model in his life. Or maybe Kyle is the youngest of five children, and he’s been “babied” all his life, which explains why even as an adult he can’t do anything on his own. His motivation might be to show his family that he can do it on his own; or it could be the opposite: his motivation is to never have to grow up.
These are just made-up scenarios, of course, but the point is that you as the author need to clearly define a character’s motivation by considering their past. This isn’t to say you need to explain their entire past in the book (depending on the type of book, obviously), but knowing the psychological motivation behind the action is what will bring the story–and your characters–to life.
Knowing why a character acts in a certain way is what readers will connect with. A character with no motivation is dull, and a character with no past is forgettable.
2. The Description: Avoid the Obvious
First, consider this question:
a) What is your character’s worst habit?
Biting his nails? Twirling her hair? Talking loudly? Interrupting?
Take Kyle. If you were to ask Kyle’s best friend to name Kyle’s most annoying habit, what would he say? Maybe Kyle chews with his mouth open. He might crack his knuckles a lot or pick at his dirty fingernails or curse loudly.
While you’re thinking about habits, don’t forget to consider mannerisms. Mannerisms are not necessarily bad habits but are consistent, usually unconscious, movements that can say a lot about how he or she feels in a given social situation or about another character.
Say Kyle is secretly in love with Cindy. Perhaps he’s normally calm and quiet, but when he’s around Cindy, he runs his fingers through his hair or taps his foot on the ground or waves his hands wildly about, knocking over cups and hitting passersby in the eyes. This is the perfect way to show how Kyle feels when he’s around Cindy without you, the author, having to come out and say, “Kyle got nervous when he was around Cindy and started making big movements.” A sentence like that is not interesting, but watching someone make these movements can be embarrassing, funny, or sad depending on the situation and how the reader feels about the characters.
Or when Kyle finally meets the father who abandoned him, he clenches his fists a lot. This is much better than saying, “Kyle was upset with his father.” That’s boring. Don’t be that person.
Here’s the second question to consider when thinking about character description:
b) What is your character’s most noticeable trait?
Maybe he has an oddly shaped birthmark on his neck or a missing front tooth. He could have different colored eyes or dark, bushy eyebrows like fat caterpillars. No matter what it is, there needs to be one defining characteristic for readers to grab onto.
It doesn’t have to be in their face, either. It could involve clothing. Maybe he always wears pants that are too short at the bottom or short-sleeved shirts no matter how cold it is outside. The possibilities are endless, but the important thing to remember is to pick something you can focus on for readers to remember later.
What you do not under any circumstances want to do is rely only on facial features. Describing a character as medium height with brown hair and glasses is about as unhelpful as you can get. This could be half the population! So consider the question above: what is this character’s most noticeable trait?
Take this description from one of my favorite authors, best-selling novelist Ted Dekker:
“Nevertheless, here she sat, facing the slob who spilled out of his white shirt and the flat-chested rail who peered at Darcy over pencil-thin spectacles. Robert Hamblin and Ethil Ridge. Her managers, although they did nothing of the sort.”
Notice how Dekker never mentions specific weight, hair color, or even specific clothing images beyond a white shirt. But still I am able to picture two men; and not only that, but I get a clear feeling of how the other character (Darcy) feels about these men. It’s obvious that they are not only unattractive (from words like slob, spilled, rail, peered) but bad managers, and you (the reader) join Darcy in feeling antagonistic toward them. This all in less than forty words.
Or let’s look at the description from Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63. Figure out what character trait he’s choosing to focus on, and see if this makes it easier for you to picture this character:
My first impression of Sadie–everyone’s first impression, I have no doubt–was her height… She was six feet at least, maybe a little more… Sadie had, in the argot of the day, a really good build. She knew it and was self-conscious about it rather than proud. I could tell that from the way she walked.
It doesn’t matter that King never gives particulars about what she’s wearing, because that’s not the point. The point is, she’s tall. And even beyond that, this is a character who has a distinct walk–possibly slightly hunched, as if to try and make herself look shorter.
So in answering our a) and b) questions from above, we could guess (at least based on this initial description) that a) her hunched, almost self-pitying walk is her worst habit and b) her incredible height is her most noticeable trait.
As Stein says, “Opportunities are available in a character’s gait, posture, demeanor, and other physical behavior” besides the cliché physical attributes. “Posture can provide personality… Physical behavior can give the reader a sense of personality: tapping a finger, pointing with eyeglasses, snickering, laughing, clapping hands wildly.”
3. The Development: Establishing Character Growth
Ask yourself this: How do your main characters change from the beginning of the story to the end?
It’s this simple: your characters should not behave at the end of the story they way they did in the beginning. We talked earlier about mannerisms and defining the psychological motivation, and now it comes full circle, because a book is not only a journey of a plot line but one of character growth.
Let’s use Kyle once again. Kyle’s father left the family when Kyle was little, and now into adulthood Kyle has had to deal with trust issues. At the end of the book, readers are going to want reconciliation, and that will come when they see Kyle form a male relationship with, say, his uncle or his pastor, or maybe his father comes back. The point is, Kyle is in a different place; he’s grown into a better person as a result. (He could even have become a worse person, depending on the type of story you’re writing; but he has to have changed in some way.)
Or maybe Kyle has a problem with his temper. He gets upset easily and blames others for the wrong that’s been done to him. By the end, Kyle should show improvement. Readers will want to see him able to control his temper and take responsibility for his actions. This is character growth, and this is what will ensure that your characters are remembered even after the book is over.
It’s frustrating to reach the end of a novel and realize the main characters are exactly the same people as when they started. In those cases, I wonder why I bothered to read the book at all. There are so many creative ways to show characters growth. You can create a character who has issues with pride, self-esteem, weight, love, addiction…
The important thing is that they learned something and are different somehow.
At this point you might be wondering if creating memorable characters applies to nonfiction as well. The answer is a resounding yes. Nonfiction should read like fiction (that is, if it’s not an instruction manual or school textbook). Memoirs, autobiographies, books about history–these should all include characters, even if the character is you. Just like no one wants to read a novel with a boring main character, no one wants to read an autobiography about a boring person.
I hope this has showed you how important motivation, description, and character growth are to creating a character worth remembering. These things must be evident if you want readers thinking about your story and characters long after the final page is closed.