What makes characters like Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Shrek stand out? Why do readers connect more with Frankenstein than with the doctor? Why do we fall in love with Venom?
A well-developed character inspires and touches the reader. By making the character relatable, a reader can connect to it. Adding recognizable traits makes a character feel real and accessible. You can touch a reader by having them feel with your characters.
Developing a relatable and well-written character is not easy, but it is vital to writing a strong story. Luckily there are some pointers to work with.
1. Give them personality, not just emotions
When I just started writing, I would give my characters strong emotional reactions to everything. They were not angry, they were furious. Not annoyed, but downright pissed off and ready to murder. But there was nothing to back these feelings up, so my characters stayed flat. But what does give them personality?
An emotion is a response (feeling) to an incident at a certain moment. Personality is a pattern of behavior, desire, and thoughts over time and space. A person feels upset, but that is not their personality. They can, however, be pessimistic.
Create behavioral patterns for your character throughout the whole story, but also beyond that. We only follow them for a certain amount of time, but most of them ‘have a life’ before and/or after the story. Take that into consideration.
2. Add different sides to their personality
I do not know about you, but I am a very happy person. A lot of people will call me optimistic, cheerful, and energetic. I have more sides to me though. I am sensitive, naïve, and loud as well. Making me a perfectly rounded character. And I know that the same goes for you.
Just like us, a well-written character needs different sides to their personality. It makes them come to life. When you make your detective grumpy and gloomy throughout your whole novel, readers will not be able to connect with him. It is flat and boring. But when you add another aspect, like empathy, you change the narrative.
If you struggle with finding the right traits, you can always model your character after somebody you know. Observe how you perceive them, and why.
3. Show their backstory
Nathaniel stared at the package in the passenger seat. A little white cooler. It did not look special at all. Not unless you knew what was inside of it. And Nathaniel knew. He hit the gas a little more and maneuvered his way around the cars on the highway. He was determined to get this heart to Mercy Hospital as fast as he could. If his baby sister could only see him now.
Every character has a story to tell. They have a history. Things have happened to them that shaped them into the beings they are now. Things that put them in the place where they are now.
You do not have to go into much detail about a character’s backstory, but it has to be there. It can create motivation or explain why they do what they do. Do not underestimate the reader either. Sometimes a sentence is enough. Just look at the example. I bet you have a whole lot of ideas about what happened to the baby sister.
4. Explore their inner conflict
We all face inner conflict. You do not want to work out, but you do it anyway because you know it is healthy for you. Your brother-in-law is highly unpleasant, but you smile and pretend to get along with him for your sister’s sake.
There are all sorts of conflicts going on inside your mind all the time. So why not give your character some inner conflict as well? It does not only make them come to life, but it also creates suspension in your story. What if your hero falls in love with the bad guy, for example?
Inner conflict is a good way to show the true personality of your characters. It shows their demons and struggles. How they deal with that, how they overcome it, says a lot about who they are. It can also help you with foreshadowing, so it is a win-win.
5. Let them find out what drives them
What I appreciate about a well-written character, is when it has a learning arc. When they have to figure things out, they become more realistic. There is room for character growth. The saying is ‘live and learn’ for a reason.
Let your character find out what drives them. It does not matter if they are the good guy or the bad guy. All characters need to have internal motivation to do what they are doing. Do they yearn for revenge, are they tortured by mental illness, do they want the love of their life to see them?
Make sure that you know before they do. That way you can play with it. Peel it off layer by layer so that the reader discovers more and more about your characters.
6. Show that they are like the person next door
Warning, unpopular opinion coming up: I HATE Batman. I really can not stand the guy. Why? Because he is super unrelatable. Rich, snobbish kid that grows up with a butler that acts like a dad but still calls him sir. He is always sulky and mopey, never changes his emotions. He plays with gadgets and toys and acts like a jury, judge, and executioner. His way is the only right way. Please, give me a break.
His counter hero from the other universe, Iron Man, is just as filthy rich as he is. But he is an asshole. He drinks too much, loves to color outside the lines, and gets reprimanded for it. He enjoys his life, has fun, makes jokes, gets angry, falls in love, feels shame. He is like every other person.
To make your character likable and relatable, make them like the person next door. Write them as if the reader could walk up to them and strike a conversation.
7. Let them develop new strengths
To make your character look more like the person next door, don’t give them all the skills they need to solve the problem right away. Just like any other person, they will have their strengths, but it becomes more interesting if they need to develop new ones.
Let them reflect on lessons they learned in the past, let them try new things and fail, let them struggle. Just like in real life, you do not learn to walk without falling down a few times. But success follows when you keep trying.
To give your character the strength to keep trying, they need to know what drives them. See how it all links together?
8. Have them struggle with their flaws
Have you ever met a person who is just sunshine and smiles all the time? That never has a hair out of place, who’s teeth are pearly white, and who’s body looks like it is chiseled out of stone? A person that knows exactly what to say and when to say it? If you did, I bet they were hella annoying!
Chances are that you have not met this person. Why? Because it is not natural to be without flaws. Everybody has internal demons. They are a know-it-all, a neat freak, dominant or submissive, potty-mouthed, mean, the list goes on and on. Every person has at least a few flaws, so make sure your character does too.
It can become especially interesting when those flaws are an obstacle they have to overcome. When they need to get past their shyness to win over the love of their life, or when they finally have to say no to somebody for the first time. Play with it. Turn flaws into strengths and strengths into flaws.
9. Give them a quirk or two
I might just be the bounciest person you meet. Plus I make dad-jokes all the freaking time. They are just two of my quirks, but they are an important part of my personality. I wouldn’t be me without them.
Quirks do not just play a big part in how you feel, but also in how others perceive you. You can play with them to give your character a more dark, endearing, witty, etc. kind of feel. It makes a character memorable.
When you give your character a certain quirk, make sure that other characters respond to it. Some people love my bounciness, while others can not stand it. It is only natural. You can not like everybody, and not everybody can like you. Keep that in mind.
Applying these nine steps will help you create an in-depth character. A character with multiple layers. Enjoy creating these new lives and befriend them. It is truly magical, and the best part is that you wave the wand!