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This week’s tasty treat comes in the form of making a good character, and lots of advice surrounding it.
Some of the techniques that you can use to write good characters seems to have nothing to do with writing at all on the surface. But when you dig deeper, have everything to do with writing good characters.
What is a good character?
They are characters that are interesting, three-dimensional, realistic, believable and relatable.
But not necessarily likeable…
Someone who everyone likes isn’t particularly believable. Or, in fact, likeable. You can overdose sickly sweet characters just like you can overdose on sugar.
Like Mary Poppins—while she is lovely (and practically perfect in every way) people don’t relate to her, they relate to the kids she helps. Or, in some cases, I suppose to the parents who need some magic to get their crazy kids under control…
Make your characters interesting
As you’ll be spending a lot of time with your characters, naturally, you’ll want to enjoy that time. As will readers—if a character isn’t likeable for the sake of it, it makes them more interesting and the reader is more likely to keep turning the page.
You’ve got to connect with your characters and understand them. If you can’t connect, your readers won’t either.
Don’t judge your characters
It’s not your job to judge them. They should have some negative traits, just as all humans do. But it’s not your job to judge them for that.
Readers will judge them differently based on their past experiences and their own individual bias.
Author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, had a fan approach her once at a book sighing and comment on how she felt inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey recovering from an abusive marriage in Eat, Pray, Love.
But he wasn’t abusive—he was just an arsehole.
The reader had projected something from her experiences onto Elizabeth, and gained something additional from the memoir because of that.
Make your main character normal
‘Normal’ characters are more accessible to the reader. They’re therefore more likely to connect with—and relate to—the character..
Since main characters are the reader’s way into the story, it’s important for your ideal reader to connect with them.
Of course, not all characters should be normal. For instance, those who watch Gilmore Girls find that they remember many of the quirky side characters, but it’s the universality of the main characters that draws people in.
Whether you connect more with Rory or Lorelai, those are the normal, relatable people drawing you in.
I’m particularly fond of Lorelai and her don’t give a fuck attitude. She will do what is best for her and her kid, often in direct contradiction to what’s expected of her according to other people. Which makes for a fantastic, interesting, deep, and relatable character.
Charmed (1998) does something similar. A lot of the success that Charmed has was down to the concept of having them as women first and foremost, and witches second. They just wanted to live their normal lives.
In a lot of respects, the fantasy was secondary to the reality.
This unique approach made the show feel more grounded than other shows of its time.
Most Charmed fans have a favourite character; one they related to more than others, too. This gives those watching a way into the story, and an immediate way to connect with what is going on.
(For anyone interested, I always related more to Piper, as I can’t help but want to take care of and mother those I love. Kristina always related to Prue, and grew up channelling her inner Prue to be the badass she is today. Just don’t talk to her about season eight.)
Some stories don’t have a main character with universal traits
But it oftens ends up that readers find it harder to connect to those stories.
It’s not impossible to have readers connect to these characters, but it does make it harder. There still needs to be some kind of common ground between the reader and the main characters.
Particularly in romance or women’s fiction—anything character-driven relies on this.
Whether you’re a fan of these stories or not, you can appreciate what they’ve done to make fantasy and erotica more mainstream.
It’s not about quality, but instead about analysing their popularity and how they attained it.
You can learn a lot from successful novels—even if their writing style or genre isn’t your thing.
How to emulate success stories
Understanding them and what they do well to obtain their success helps you to build your career. And you can study what people have said about it to help with this.
You can look at critic review, but these will be assessing it from a technical standpoint, rather than giving you an insight into what it is that people like about it.
So if you look for reviews on places like Goodreads, Twitter, and Reddit, for examples, you’ll get a better idea of what it is that people really liked about the novel.
Which means you don’t even have to read books on it, you can just use the internet!
(A terrible technique I used during my History BA, but it’s a good one for this research!)
Heroes vs villains vs protagonists vs antagonists
Phrases like heroes and villains, or protagonists and antagonists can be detrimental. This is something Kristina highlights in her book, How to Write Believable Characters.
We assume that villains and antagonists are bad people—the words immediately conjure those connotations, which make it harder to write them as well-rounded people and to empathise with them.
Even the most evil of people can have a softer side, brought out by the right people.
Much like the main character from the Netflix show, You.
In season one, they add in a side character—a kid that lives in his apartment block. Joe likes to help him. He brings him food and shows him some compassion. This side character didn’t exist in the book—he was added in by the writers to show Joe’s softer side. This makes him more three-dimensional.
Little did they know that tons of people would end up having a creepy crush on Joe…
This wasn’t the intention of the writers, but a weird byproduct of him being more three-dimensional.
And looking like Penn Badgely.
People project their own ideals onto characters
Like that cliched idea that you can change a bad boy. It’s one of the things that attracts people to typically bad boy characters.
These projections can often be unrealistic, but then, a lot of romance is fantasy anyway.
People get to play out their romantic fantasies in their heads, no matter how…interesting they may be.
(No kink shaming from me!)
This is part of what makes rockstar romances and paranormal romances so popular. Almost everyone has a romantic fantasy they can’t fulfil in real life, big or small. Books allow people to fulfil that, at least in their heads.
That is true for a lot of other genres, too.
Which is why making sure that the reader can relate to your character is vital. Whether that be in a particular personality trait, their ‘normal’ starting position, or something else.
The reason the Hero’s Journey technique is so popular is because the hero starts off with a typically humdrum life and is reluctant to upset the status quo. Everyone can relate to that.
All characters go on a journey
This will develop throughout the story and does not have to be external.
Most of the journeys that Kristina’s characters go through aren’t external. An emotional journey is just as valid as a physical one.
But characters will change between the first page and the last. That is what gives readers a reason to keep going.
Even if they know what happens next (spoilers are everywhere!) they may not know how it happens.
The change a character goes through is a character arc, and we have lots more to share about character arcs next episode!
Adding interesting hobbies
Another way to make character more interesting is to give them unique or unexpected hobbies that may help with the story, or even ones that contradict the type of person they are.
Rockstar granny, anyone?
You can also add a dark side to a seemingly good person, and show their different sides based on how they interact with different people.
In my current work in progress (yet to be named something amazing) my main character, Alex, reconnects with her dad in quite an unusual way and is really happy to welcome her into her life and she’s always wanted to find him.
However, little does she know her dad is using her to gain some of her magical power.
Oh wait, forget that! I’ve given away spoilers for anyone that reads my work in the future! 🤦♀️
The show This is Us is really great at showcasing a variety of different generations, times, races, and families.
The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher) includes multiple characters from multiple different family dynamics, and he does a great job of demonstrating how that can have an impact on the person.
Not that it becomes their defining feature. Jim Butcher isn’t writing a treatise on how family dynamics during childhood impact adults (I don’t think…) but if you analyse it, you can see that at play.
In Gone Girl (I know, I know, Kristina won’t stop going on about Gone Girl… I guess I’ll have to read it.) Amy Dunne gives what has come to be known as the ‘cool girl’ speech.
It resonated with a lot of women who change themselves to suit society, or to be the kind of woman that most men want, and when they try to be themselves, it backfires.
See how she’s getting lots of people to relate to the main character this way?
Despite the character doing some dark, evil things, and being a typically unlikeable character because of those things, people relate to the situation she’s in.
In Roxanne Gay’s book, Bad Feminist, she suggests these women who are classed as unlikeable aren’t so because they have unlikeable character traits, but instead because they’re being themselves.
When they’re authentically themselves, either through a desire to embrace that, or an unwillingness to embrace the falsehood of what they ‘should be’ to be liked, they’re defaulted over to unlikeable because they don’t fit the mould for what we expect from women.
Gillian Flynne, the author of Gone Girl, had to embrace her anger and a multitude of other negative emotions to accurately portray them in the book—can you imagine how emotionally draining that must have been?
She said in an interview that she would have to take a break after writing before seeing her family to make sure she didn’t take it out on them.
How to write dark characters
Firstly, don’t be afraid to go to those dark places.
You can’t have good without bad. All the positive scenes mean so much more when you know how many negative things the character has been through.
Plus, if you’re shying away from approaching those darker emotions, your characters won’t be able to fully show them either, probably making the character weaker for it.
We had a friend who needed to write quite a cold, angry character, but was afraid to express those emotions herself. Kristina advised her to write a ‘Dear X’ letter to allow her to express her anger and all the negativity she was holding back.
For anyone that doesn’t know, a ‘Dear X’ letter is where you write down all the feelings you have towards someone that you may not have been able to express to them. It allows you to freely express all your pent-up emotions.
When you’re done, burn (safely)! or rip up the written paper, or delete it if it’s digital. This isn’t designed to be read. Ever. It’s designed to free you!
It’s very cathartic.
You have to make sure you are not afraid of experiencing the emotions yourself, or of what people will think of you when you go to that dark place.
If you do, you’ll hold your characters back from going to those dark places, too.
I imagine Brett Easton Ellis was visiting those dark places a lot when he wrote American Psycho. That book is messed up in quite an impressive way.
(We worry for you, Brett ❤️)
Psychology is the key to three-dimensional characters
Ah, that P-word.
If you can understand more about people, you can understand more about characters.
For instance, we all behave slightly differently around different people. This is often subconscious, but it is a useful technique in showing more depth of your character without having to spell things out for your reader.
You can do this through altering language, tone of voice, body language, etc. It all adds up.
If you want to learn more about psychology, there’s plenty of stuff out there on my favourite source, the internet. You don’t have to study psychology at degree level, or anywhere close, to have a good enough understanding to improve your characters.
We do have some book recommendations if you wanted to treat yourself:
There are a plenty more, depending on what you learn.
The key thing to understand is cause and effect.
Understanding cause and effect
X trigger leads to Y behaviour leads to Z consequence.
Let’s say a kid once threw up during a school play. This then causes them to get stage fright, meaning they can’t get up on stage and sing, even though that’s all they’ve ever wanted. When they do go on stage, they end up having a panic attack.
Someone who wants desperately to sing but is held back by previous trauma is a great story premise.
Their character arc is how they get over the stage fright. Or how they don’t as the case may be, and where their life ends up.
Avoiding character inconsistencies
Sometimes, if you have a long running series, where characters have built up various experiences that influence who they are, you know them quite well and can anticipate how they might react to certain things.
Of course, sometimes writers change, and things can become inconsistent, which is incredibly frustrating.
Kristina was watching a series recently and the character who was previously a bad boy who didn’t want commitment ended up begging his ex to take him back a few episodes later.
We won’t spoil which show this was, as it’s quite recent. (You can tweet her if you want to find out!)
Readers/watchers will notice this, and it will frustrate them. Possibly frustrate them enough to put down your book.
The best way to avoid inconsistencies is planning!
Our other favourite P-word.
If you plan in advance, and track out their characters arc, you can avoid having your characters do something totally out of character.
Indie vs trad publishing
If you’re going down the traditional publishing route, it’s harder to do this because you can’t guarantee they’ll purchase the full series—you may find that if the first book doesn’t fulfil their expectations, they’ll own the rights to your characters but won’t publish anymore stories about them.
You have much more freedom with indie publishing.
You’ll get to set your own goals, and get much more of a say over what’s classed as success or failure.
Plus more freedom over every other aspect of the creative process, too.
There are lots of different pressures you will find in traditional publishing that don’t exist if you are an indie publisher.
Having said that, Kristina and I both read a lot more indie published stuff, particularly on Kindle.
There are a lot of difference between these and traditional published ones, and one of the huge differences is the characters within.
Character-driven books do very well for indie publishers, because a lot of the success of indie books comes from having a series. Readers will stick with the series if they like the characters.
Or, indeed, loathe them.
But you have to know more about them
One of Kristina’s characters, Trinity, creates one of the strongest emotional reactions compared to her other characters.
It’s really great when your readers have such a strong reaction.
As her story progresses in Hollywood Nightmare, you start to understand her motivations a lot more and learn that she is, fundamentally, a very broken human being.
This makes her three-dimensional, and also relatable in a lot of ways.
Readers ended up loving the change, once they got over the initial surprise. It also created a curiosity gap—they knew how Trinity ended up in a few years’ time, so what happened between now and then to make her change so much?
And thus, they bought the following book, to find out what happened next…