This is a guest post by Nicholas Rubright from Stock photo from Shutterstock.

Crafting a captivating story requires crafting a whole new world.

If the characters in your story feel a little flat, it might be time to direct some of your attention away from your story’s central plot and into its personalities. After all, it’s a story’s characters—and not its daring happenings—that make it emotionally relatable to your audience.

Keep reading to learn more about how to create mouldable characters that don’t seem like paper dolls.

Create icebergs

Good characters aren’t mere characters at all. They’re living, breathing people—that you just so happen to be documenting with words on a page. And living, breathing people are complex. In fact, they’re extraordinarily deep, much like an iceberg that hides most of its depth under the surface.

More on real people later. For now let’s focus on how to create depth in characters, and how to create stories that remain just out of reach of the reader.

Let’s say your novel has a lead character called XYZ. XYZ is currently a pastor with a happy family. Prior to converting to the faith, however, XYZ lived a decidedly less holy life. Instead of baring all with your writing and describing all the terrible things XYZ has done, try providing little glimpses into XYZ’s thoughts: moments when his past momentarily comes back to haunt him.

You can further the ‘iceberg effect’ by keeping certain occurrences out of the awareness of other characters, too. Does XYZ have a secret that his wife doesn’t know about—and that she can’t know about? Great. Just as long as you make sure this secret stays secretive.

Make a character sketch

Keeping track of a truly complex character can be challenging. However, as a writer this is your job. So feel free to use all the help you can get! 

One especially helpful way to outsource all your character-related ideas is a character sketch. What’s a character sketch?

A character sketch isn’t a literal artistic sketch, though it might make sense to sketch it out on paper so you can refer to it as you type away.

A character sketch includes the following:

  • Character name
  • Character age/gender
  • Character appearance (clothing, body type, etc.)
  • Related characters/relationships
  • Attitude toward life
  • Attitude toward others
  • Attitude changes throughout the course of the story
  • Hopes and dreams
  • Fears and phobias
  • Secrets and regrets
  • Internal conflicts
  • Anything else interesting

While the above bullet points capture a lot of info, they’re really just the start.

Anything and everything you can think of can be included in a character sketch. The most important character metrics will also vary depending on the nature of the novel.

Simple example: if you’re writing a romance novel, then defining the character’s sexual orientation may be of importance. 

Think about real people

Need some inspiration when it comes to fully sketching out your most recent character? Hey, we’ve all been there. It might help to think about real people. 

To get more specific, it might help to think about real archetypes. If you have a warm father figure in your life, then feel free to draw off his qualities in the character sketch of a father in your story.

If your main character is an alcoholic, on the other hand, then it might help to think of any people you know who’ve struggled with alcohol dependency. If you don’t know anyone who fits the bill, consider going to an AA meeting.

Yes, really—do whatever it takes to make your story’s characters colourful and real. If you have to meet more people in real life to accomplish this, then so be it. 

Give your characters desire

Kurt Vonnegut used to tell his creative writing students to make their characters want something right away, even if it’s a simple glass of water.

Part of being a real person is having a deep-seated desire for something. The warm father figure’s guilt from previous relationships motivates him to love his children with everything he’s got; the alcoholic’s failure in attaining prior desires means her only current desire is to escape her guilt.

Regardless of what a character’s desire is (or isn’t), keep it in mind at all times…and do your best to highlight the character’s struggles between where they are currently and what they want in the future. Such is life. 

Pattern a character after yourself

Of course, the best person you know is probably yourself. You may be able to draw a character’s personality out of some aspect of your own. You might already be doing this—whether you’re doing it consciously or not.

So try patterning a character after yourself, especially if you hadn’t been doing this already. You might be surprised how many universally relatable character qualities come out of who you are. Whole books have been written using the fuel that is a writer’s innermost being.

Don’t forget dialects! 

This last tip is more of a bonus point—but don’t think it’s of lesser importance than the tips above.

To make a character feel extra relatable, extra real, and ultra-exciting to read about, try using dialects. Is your main character from the Southern US? Then make sure your deep-fried vernacular extends beyond ‘y’all.’

Is your character from Ireland? Then sprinkle in that region’s dialect. 

For a more multidimensional look at how dialects can work, look at Alain Mabanckou’s 2005 novel, Broken Glass*. The novel is written from the perspective of its main character almost as an afterthought, and it shows. The novel contains no periods, ample amounts of misspellings, and ungodly amounts of commas. 

If he’d written it today, Mabanckou may have shorted out his grammar checker, but this unruly style works because it places the reader into the writer’s unfiltered mind.

Now that you’ve got your character’s inner qualities established, the sky’s the limit. Here’s to writing better, writing faster, and writing more relatable characters!

*Affiliate link. It won’t cost you any extra to purchase through one of our links, but we will get a small commission for every purchase.

Nicholas Rubright

Nicholas Rubright is a communications specialist at Writer. In his free time, Nicholas enjoys playing guitar, writing music, and building cool things on the internet. Follow him on LinkedIn.