Dear writer, use this guide to create unforgettable characters for your stories and books.
It’s good to write a good story. Better still, an unforgettable one. For every writer, it is impertinent to pen down a story people want to always come back to; to have something in your pages that leaves a mark. It might be the plot of the work itself, or the message contained between the lines, or it might just be the characters.
Characterization. That’s my thing. I’m crazy about building real lives for the people that dwell in my head. Reading other writers, I get bored whenever I come across a cliché character. How often do we meet the tall, dark and handsome; the slim and pretty; the suffering single mother or widow; the abusive husband; the slut who sleeps around to make ends meet; the lovey-dovey couple that go in the way of all romance novels?
But of course, these stereotypes do exist in real life, and it would be unfair not to feature one or two of them in a story. But the real question here is, how do we take the ordinary, everyday people and give them extraordinary lives?
- Clone a real person.
Life is full of amazing people, interesting real life individuals you can replicate in your story. They might be folks you meet every day or the ones you have the privilege of knowing for a short while or they may just be strangers that play cameo roles in your life. The best of writers are known to write about people they have had encounters with. My friends often warn me not to make them characters in my stories. Unfortunately I don’t pay attention to them. Most of my best characters were inspired by real people and events. I find it fun sometimes to just see a passer-by and build on what I imagine is that person’s life when no one is watching. It’s a lot of fun and it makes your characters believable.
- Pick an appropriate name.
Make sure the name fits the character. For instance, you could use the name Cleo for a sassy female or Mathew for a calm, stable guy. Ensure that the name is not similar to another personality’s name in the story or your readers might get confused. You could also use nicknames to fit the character’s nature. You could try naming them by ethnicity or religion as well. This helps explain the make-up of the person better.
- Give them habits.
Real people have habits. Take me for instance, I fall asleep almost every night listening to music, and then my husband takes my earphones away and switches off my phone. Now imagine when my earphones are bad and how that affects my night. Your character should have some peculiar behavior, mannerism or tick that marks them different from others. It could be an unnecessary sniffing or nail-biting or midnight snacking or noisy gum-chewing. There’s an endless list you can play with. Just don’t leave the people in your story doing what everyone else does.
- Get into their heads, understand human psychology.
For every time someone in my story takes an action, especially a serious one that would affect other persons, I try to get into their head first and understand the psychology that pushes them into such acts. As a writer, you must know that people just don’t wake up and do stuff. There’s always a reason for their actions, whether consciously or subconsciously. The brain is the seat of human thought and a lot happens there. Dig into your character’s brain and you’ll be shocked what you’ll find there.
- Create conflict.
Bland, monotonous personalities never interested anyone. If the only thing your characters do is get up, go to bed, get to work, get married and have babies, your readers will easily forget them. Create conflict. Give them crisis. Leave them at crossroads. Shake their core and sometimes just freaking kill them.
- See beneath the beautiful.
I don’t believe in the absolute goodness or badness of human beings. We all have our angelic and dark sides, and that is why people shock us all the time. You may be writing a story where there’s a villain who is so bad, he just has to die in the end. Fine and good. But have you considered showing his human side, making your readers love to hate him? Or how about the heroine that drops good deeds at every turn, have you unveiled that ugly part of her that she hides from the world?
- Appearance is important.
I’m not much of a fan of giving too much detail about a character. Sometimes I give no physical detail at all and let the personality and habits build an image in the reader’s mind. However, it’s sometimes important to describe your characters by painting a picture of their appearance. You could do so by describing their looks, dressing, expressions and even their personal space. For instance, you might not want to write about their entire look. A bushy, cocked pair of eyebrows that always give a questioning expression might describe a person who is wary of everyone around them or just arrogant.
- Eliminate or diversify clichés.
Clichés can never be avoided. Like I stated above, real life is full of them, people love them and they sell books. However, exhibition is the key to making a humdrum character into something memorable. Always look for a personality spin to add to your seemingly predictable character. Never leave them as they are. A good example is the love story of Genesis and Dominic in my series Novocaine Knights. They end up having their happily ever after but the history of Genesis before she met Dominic and what she did when faced with an impossible situation is what makes her character unforgettable.
- Consistency, not contradiction.
I often tell my readers I can’t force happy endings. To me, a good character dictates the plot of a story. You can’t begin writing about an independent woman who has worked hard through honest means, suffered sexism and indiscrimination, and has finally made it to the top; only to make her start giving blowjobs just to win a government contract, without throwing in a real conflict. Sorry, that’s just character assassination right there. Keep your characters consistent. Even when you add a twist, never spin the personality off their true nature.
- Don’t leave out the minors.
Cameos can play major roles in changing the direction of a plot. I remember a true life story of a couple trying for a child for eight years. At last they got pregnant with twins that were birthed on the eighth month. A nurse came to bathe them the next morning and dunked one of the babies into steaming water, making her suffer second degree burns that left her with scars. That nurse was just a cameo in the life of that family but she played a major role in their existence. The same could apply in your story. Cameos don’t necessarily have to alter the plot; they might just be there to add flavor. Like a housecleaner who whistles to the tune of the popular hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” every morning to the hearing of her madam who suffers physical abuse each night.
- Finally, play God.
God created people; people created events. This is because God put everything in them that would keep them busy. He also made everyone unique and left them all with exclusive flaws. Build a real world for your characters. Give them the sun and moon and the rivers and all they need to survive. Until they become part of you and exist in you, you have not tapped into them yet and they would come off lacking. You have to feel their pain, laugh with them, share in their joy and bleed when you drive a knife through their guts and lay them six feet under. That way, your readers will connect with them and even delve deeper, bringing out peculiarities that even you didn’t notice. A good character once birthed, takes on life on its own. Your job from thenceforth will be to keep nurturing and painting the world they exist in, the same way God does.
One last word from Henry James aptly describes my mind on this topic: What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?
READ: Dear Writer
Thanks a lot Sally. I really needed this
Thank u so much Sally.. i think its time for me to start working on that story… thanks for sharing
Please do. I’ll love to read it
Thank you much ma. Bookmarked already!!
Thank you much ma. Bookmarked and saved already!!
You’re welcome, dear
Thanks for the tips.
No, I won’t just claim to have gotten all I need from this article by “just” reading it. I will save it, share it, write it down, screenshot it, download it…… Infact do all I can to make it stick real good.
When you get first class advice from the master, you dnt treat it lightly.
Thank you Sally. You do not know the extent of your inspiration in my life.
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