Creating Interesting Characters

(Adapted from Novel Writing Help.)

 

Gilbert and AnneWho are the most interesting people you know?

What makes them interesting?

This isn’t rocket science . . . the same concepts apply to the characters you create in your novel.

It’s all a matter of spice.

Let’s say that your main character is an accountant who has been married for more than forty years and is nearing retirement.

Yawn.

Try stirring in some spice: make him a roulette expert who is planning to cheat the casino out of millions with the help of a nineteen-year-old pole dancer called Kandy, and your readers will sit up and take notice!

That’s obviously just one isolated example. You need to decide what would make your characters interesting. And there are about as many of those are there are characters—but here ae a few things that might make a character interesting:

  • The job the character does. Maybe he’s a spy. Maybe she launders money for the CIA. Maybe she quit the rat race of a high-pressure job on Wall Street to farm Alpacas in a remote village. Or maybe he’s a tightrope walker plagued by vertigo.
  • The places the character has been and the sights she has seen—the more exotic and unusual, the better.
  • The character’s skills and talents. Maybe he plays the harpsichord, can perform magic, or walks on fire.

Here’s an easy way to gauge it: if your characters are interesting to you, you will be able to write about them with enough passion to interest the people who count—your readers.

And here’s another important tip: try to make your characters ordinary but at the same time extraordinary.

Here’s what I mean by that. If you want readers to care about your character, that character should in many ways be an ordinary, regular person—a kind of James Stewart or Tom Hanks “everyman” figure. (Obviously, the same thing applies to women.)

But that’s only half of the story. Readers will soon grow bored with a character if there isn’t something about the character that is unusual or exotic or mysterious. In other words, you want a character who is both familiar and unfamiliar. Just like us but not at all like us. Ordinary but extraordinary.

Bruce SpringsteenIn short, creating fictional characters is a kind of balancing act.

It is a character’s ordinariness that will make the novel’s readers initially warm to the character. And whatever is extraordinary about the character that will prick the reader’s curiosity and make her want to stick around for more.

To see what we mean, think about the musician Bruce Springsteen. When he stands on stage in front of 80,000 fans, there is something godlike about him. There isn’t a single member of the audience who wouldn’t like to be in his shoes. But it’s also easy to imagine him rolling up his sleeves and helping you change a flat tire in the parking lot after the concert. His extraordinary qualities make you want to be like him—and his ordinary qualities make you like him. (By the way, Springsteen himself said that the day he looks into the crowd and can’t see himself standing there is the day he quits.)

(Photos: top, YouTube; bottom, Consequence of Sound)

 

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