For a story to work, we need to create characters our readers will connect with.
We wanted Harry to defeat Voldemort.
We wanted Harry and Sally to get together.
We wanted John Wick to find the arsehole that killed his puppy (given to him by his late wife).
So, what are the key ingredients your story and characters need for your readers to connect with them? Let’s take a look…
If you don’t people watch, I demand you go do so after reading this post.
It’s the only way you’ll learn to craft realistic dialogue.
People are funny; they speak in very different ways depending on where they are and who they’re with. Your characters should be no different.
‘Save the Cat’ moment
Even the most heinous of characters has a moment where they ‘save the cat’.
This is where they do something nice—eg save a cat—which basically admonishes them from all wrongdoing in future events.
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for example, the character is a total bitch to the police officer but nice to a cockroach. It’s a small gesture, but it shows how she isn’t really a bad person, she’s just hurting.
This moment should come early in your story, before your character does anything too bad or unforgivable. It reminds your reader that, no matter what horrible things your character does next, they’re not really that bad: they’re three-dimensional, just like you and me.
What humanises your character?
In John Wick, he kills a hell of a lot of people.
But he does it because he lost his wife two days ago, and the bastards killed his puppy Daisy—the last present she ever gave him…so that he didn’t close off his heart without her.
Any dog or animal lover will instantly relate to a character like that, ditto anyone who’s lost a loved one.
The guy has some mad skills, but we understand why he’s on this path and know he’s not (entirely) a cold-blooded killer because of his wife and Daisy.
A unique way of speaking
We all have our own ways of speaking, but we often don’t realise it.
One of my brand values, for example, is modern but retro as I often team millennial phrases with old-fashioned or weird words that most people my age don’t use.
You’ll have your own idiolect without realising it, too.
This may or may not come across in your writing.
Your character should have their own idiolect, though. They shouldn’t imitate how you speak.
Their personality will be reflected in how they speak.
Check out tools like Textio for examples of gendered language, or use something like ProWritingAid to find simpler or more complex versions of words.
Take them on a journey
If your character is in the same emotional place at the end of the book that they were at the start, what have they learnt?
Why has your reader stuck with them to the end?
They need to go on an emotional journey, whether that’s purely inside their own head or on some sort of adventure, too.
Your reader may not realise that they’ve gone on this emotional journey with your character, but they will notice if they don’t.
This is referred to as the character arc.
I like to use the 2017 version of Suicide Squad as an example of how not to write character arcs.
It’s an ensemble film, but the only character that goes through any sort of emotional development is Will Smith’s character, Bullseye.
You root for him; you want him to spend time with his kid and be the dad that he wants to be for him. The rest of the characters don’t have that.
Harley Quinn and The Joker had elements of it, but nothing changes; she’s just as dependent on him at the end as she is at the beginning.
How people idolise their abusive relationship and think it’s something to root for I’ll never know. (It’s far worse in the comics. Just give it a Google. It was definitely watered down for Hollywood.)
Emotion over plot (and sometimes common sense)
If you forget everything else in this post, remember this one point.
I don’t enjoy books like 50 Shades of Grey or Bridget Jones as I find the main characters whiny, but a lot of women relate to their situations.
We want to read about characters that we’d have lunch with. We want to read about characters we admire. We want to read about characters we want to be.
Every popular—and great—story’s driving force is emotion.
The main character’s emotion will dictate many of the events in the story—a passive character would respond very differently to a trigger compared to a more aggressive character, for example.
Once you know your character better than you know yourself, that’s when your story—even a plot-driven one—begins to write itself.
Characters are everything
Agents may choose books based on plot, but they—and readers—keep reading because of characters.
Boring characters that your target audience can’t relate to will cause readers to put your book down, or worse—you may face a backlash.
Imagine having a passive doormat as a protagonist that doesn’t go on to become a headstrong, self-aware queen in a women’s fiction book. It just wouldn’t fly.
You need to know what your audience expects from your readers, and the only way to be sure of that is to be a reader of your chosen genre, too.
Over to You
What are your top tips for creating three-dimensional characters? Share them in the comments!