Every great story needs a great character. A hero we can connect with and cheer for their success. A villain we can sneer at and anxiously await their demise. Vibrant supporting characters that make the setting so much more than a backdrop for good vs evil.
The creation of a great character is harder than one might anticipate. It may be easy for an author to see their character in their head, to instinctually "know" that character's quirks and drives, but it is quite a different beast to display those attributes accurately on the page. All too often, beloved heroes feel flat and two-dimensional when our intentions was to create a personality as dynamic as the plot they're mired in.
So, what makes a great character?
Start off with the basics, the physical features. Hair color, height, body shape, age. These features don't necessarily have to be in the book (many great books never describe their main character's appearance), but the author should know just in case any scenarios arise that make those features pertinent.
Now add some life experience to that body. Tattoos, scars, how they got them and why. The character's fashion style, especially if it somehow marks them as different from the majority (a special uniform, wearing neon when everyone else prefers earth-tone, an obsession with spikes and leather). Do they wear glasses? Have a medical condition that requires equipment, medications, or unique challenges? Were they born this way, or did it happen later in life? These things help build who your character is and how they interact with the world around them.
And what about that world around them? Siblings, parents, best friends, co-workers, and other people they deal with on a regular basis. Where do they live? A big mansion with only their elderly grandmother as company, or a cramped apartment sharing a room with a relative? Do they see extended family often (grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc), or are they just a distant childhood memory? What about the rest of the community? Sprawling metro? Cozy hamlet? Dilapidated station precariously orbiting Beta Sun 6? Are they a student, trainee, corporate drone, laborer, or mysteriously wealthy? A combination?
Think about how your setting would mold your character. A person growing up in a Dystopia will have a vastly different upbringing than one in a contemporary setting, or a Hobgoblin from an Elf. What about the presence of magic, superpowers, or advanced technology? Think about the different circumstances in society you've faced versus what your parents faced at your age. How might things have been different or the same for your character?
Time to get cerebral. Quirks, flaws, fears, and desires: the building blocks of Personality.
What hobbies do they enjoy? What chores do they hate the most? Are they generous to others, or a curmudgeon with their time and labor? Outgoing or prefer to be solitary? What is their sense of humor? Think about the kinds of things which annoy you, or make you feel warm and fuzzy. What would give your character those same feelings? How would they prefer to spend their time? Even something which seems insignificant, like favorite foods, can be used to showcase the depth of personality in the right scenario.
Don't worry if you never tell the audience every detail about your hero. Most of character building is only for the author's knowledge, but knowing these tiny details will influence how that personality is translated to the page. Anything that does need to be conveyed to the reader should be done so organically, within the natural flow of the narrative, and peppered throughout the scenes. Avoid dumping backstory and description in their lap in one giant paragraph. Each detail is only written in on an "as needed" basis.
Flaws add to character growth and give them something to improve upon. These can be emotional, spiritual, economic, physical, or anything else you can think of, but should contribute to the hero's internal conflict: low self-esteem, pride, jealously, co-dependency issues, phobias. Flaws can also be "good" things, such as too generous, taking on too much responsibility, trying to "fix" everyone, a whole host of "well-meaning" actions that do more harm than good. Know when and why these flaws developed in your character (traumatizing relationship, always being told their needs are less than others, a tragic accident, etc). This will help you write how your hero will overcome these flaws to achieve their goals, which can be temporary, or a new phase in their development.
Overcoming doesn't always mean the flaw disappears. That's rarely how things work in real life. Rather, people learn to move past the flaw, to keep going when they don't want to, and your character should struggle to do the same. Showing your hero's process in battling their flaws can create an emotional connection between your story and your reader, as well as make your hero more lifelike.
Desires (or Goals, as they often are) build the motivating factors of why your character remains in the plot. Are they seeking wealth, position, power, true love? Why do they want whatever it is they want? What will it do to them as a person if they never achieve their desires? If that hard-sought promotion is denied them and their reaction is to shrug and blend in with the status-quo, there's not much reason to keep reading. Desires should keep moving the hero forward, keep them striving, fighting, questing, searching for personal improvement, whatever it takes for that character to be THE REASON your plot works the way it does. And yes, this goes for villains and supporting characters, too. What good would it do a hero if his team bailed because they just weren't feeling it anymore? (Unless it's intended as another challenge for your hero to face.)
Character desires can be taken in small scale, too - little domino effects that snowball into the over-arching plot. Perhaps your character just really wants a muffin from their favorite bakery, but buying that muffin puts them in the path of the villain: if they never went after that muffin, they never would have jaywalked, causing the taxi to swerve around them, which hit the villain's mother, the villain swearing revenge above all else! Or maybe they just really want a date, but to get that date they must embark on a soul-searching quest to prove their worth to their beloved.
When you know your hero's desires and goals, it's easy to invent challenges to block them from reaching those goals. Whether it's part of the main adventure or a subplot, give your character desires, then deny them those things. Exciting journeys are sure to follow.
This barely scratches the surface of all that goes in to building great characters. I hope you found it helpful and I'll tackle more aspects of this subject in later posts. Until next time,