Creating Characters with Bite

I’m working on a new series right now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about hooking readers into a series, it’s that the characters make all the difference.

OK, so compelling plots will keep people turning the pages. Great prose will stop them writing one-star reviews criticizing use of commas. And you need a good premise too.

But when I read reviews for successful long running series, the one thing that comes up time and time again is the characters.

Think about it. Some of the most successful book series of all time have characters at their heart.

Harry Potter has Harry, Hermione and Ron. Not to mention Dumbledore, Hagrid and Snape. I’d struggle to describe the plot of any of the books, especially the ultra-long ones towards the end of the series. But the characters are vivid.

A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, for TV fans) has characters who undergo fundamental and often horrific character arcs. It has relationships that make fans argue about what was meant by them. Everyone who’s read the books or watched the show has their own favorite character. As well as one they hate with a passion.

Crime series like Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and Michael Connelly’s Bosch have protagonists who feel real to readers, and are surrounded by teams, adversaries and villains who make readers keep coming back for more.

So if you’re going to write a novel, or a series of novels, that sticks with readers long after they’ve read the final page, the key is characters.

I plan to write many books about this team of detectives I’m getting to know. So I want to make them as vivid and compelling as possible.

What Makes for a Great Character?

So I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what goes into creating compelling characters and making them leap off the page.

Great characters seem to have these traits:

  • They aren’t predictable – they surprise readers from time to time. But they are familiar.
  • They always have a flaw or a secret, which impacts on the plot or on their reaction to it.
  • They aren’t stereotypes or archetypes – they feel as if they are individuals and not representatives of a type.
  • They have people around them who love them or hate them, or sometimes both.
  • They provoke reactions in other people. They leave a footprint on the world.
  • They have complicated relationships, which are impacted by the relationships between other characters in the book.
  • The reader can’t always predict what they will do, but once they have acted, it feels authentic.
  • They are shown to the reader – instead of being told what they look like or what kind of personality they have, we see that demonstrated through their actions.
  • They change. In some series (Reacher, Bond etc.) this isn’t the case, but in many series, even those with tens of books, there is a slow character arc.
  • They don’t exist in a vacuum – the people around them nudge them to action or reaction.
  • There’s something in them we can admire or identify with.

Whoah! That’s a lot of stuff to cram into one poor little fictional character.

Techniques for Character Development

So what techniques can you use to try and achieve all this?

I’m no expert at this. Character development isn’t something that comes as naturally to me as plotting, so I’ve been working through a bunch of techniques to help me get under the skin of my characters.

Stories from Multiple POVs

I find that I enjoy writing sidekicks but find protagonists harder. It’s as if I see the story through the protagonist’s eyes, which means I can see the sidekick clearly but not the protagonist.

So one of the techniques I’ve been trying is to write short stories about my protagonist from the point of view of other characters. I did it for my very first novel and it worked well – I got great feedback about the protagonist despite finding her very hard to see at first.

So now I have a whole bunch of ideas about stories featuring my new detective. And the bonus is I can use them as reader magnets once I publish the books!

Character Workbook

I’ve also been putting together a character workbook, a bit like my Novel Planning Workbook but for characters.

I’m still road testing it and seeing how effectively it helps me build my characters. Once I’m happy with it I’ll put it up for sale (note: it is for sale now so that I could buy a copy to test it, but it’s not as good as it can be yet, so don’t buy it!)

Working through this is forcing me to think hard about my characters and write down more detail about them, rather than hoping they’ll come to life once I start writing.

Post Its

You may know I have a bit of a soft spot for post its. I use them for plotting, for notes, to mark proofs and drafts and to identify the shape of my stories with color coding.

I’ve been carrying a block of post-its around in my pocket for the last week or so, and writing any ideas about my characters on them when they come to me.

It”s amazing where inspiration comes from. I can be reading a book, watching a TV show, or having a conversation with someone, and an idea for a character trait or a quirk comes to mind. So I scribble it down on a post-it and then add it to my big sheet of random post its.

My job for this weekend is to make sense of those!

Gleaning Ideas from Other Writers

This comes in two forms. One is reading lots, paying special attention to the characters, and learning from waht other writers do. I’m not sating I copy what other writers do. Instead, I identify the methods they use to bring their characters to life, so I can learn from that.

The other part of this is asking writer friends how they develop their characters. My writing group has moved online because of lockdown, and we’re having lots of online workshops and writing sessions right now. So I suggested one on character development.

I hope my fellow writers have some great tips I can learn from and use to bring my own characters to life.

And I’d like to use this post as a way of getting ideas from other writers too – from you.

What do you do to bring your characters to life? Have you come across any great tips that help you get the most from your characters?

Please share in the comments!

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