If you were told to make friends with a dislikeable person – or worse, if they were just plain dull, how would you feel? Probably not very excited.
It’s the same as reading a story – if your audience finds all of your characters dull and unlikeable, they likely wouldn’t stick with your story even if you had an interesting plot.
Well, you have an exciting plot worthy of well-developed characters. Part of what makes your plot exciting is that your readers have to care about what happens to your characters – whether they succeed or fail, if they win or lose. Your readers have to feel something if your characters die.
So, how do you create characters that your readers care about?
Of course you can still create alien characters, but they have to be “human” in some way – or your readers would not be able to connect with them. Whether your characters are human, humanoid, animals, aliens or objects, they still need to possess inherently human characteristics. This is why all characters, even non-human ones, usually have eyes, a mouth, and hands. Cartoon animals walk on their two hind legs, even if the actual animal usually walks on four legs. Most non-human characters have human characteristics, such as hair, clothes and the ability to speak, and they live in places with human furnishings and facilities, such as tables, chairs, cupboards, windows and everyday items.
You could create distinctly non-human characters, but their thought process has to follow that of humans with similar personalities or archetypes. For example, the Star Wars universe has many alien creatures, but they are mostly humanoid and all have distinct personalities that can also be seen in humans.
If your characters do not possess human characteristics and a human thought process, they become “alien” and unrelatable to your readers, nothing more than just props in the scene. Why? It’s just how humans are structured – we find it easier to connect with people that we can understand. If the character has emotions, a personality, a thought process that we can make sense of, then we can understand their motivations much better and are able to sympathize with them.
While you can have both good and bad characters, none of them should have only positive or only negative attributes or they could end up being too ideal and two-dimensional to your readers. If your good characters are too good, your readers might actually dislike them for being too perfect. Likewise, if your bad characters don’t have a trace of good in them, they end up being more of a comedic villain than a serious one.
As real people, we all have good and bad sides, so why should your characters be any different? Having a mix of strengths and weaknesses make your characters much more realistic and relatable, because people will start to recognize themselves in them.
Filling in a character sheet can help you brainstorm this part. Character sheets generally contain basic demographics such as the character’s name, age, gender, place of birth, and race. You could also add in other appearance options such as hair color, eye color, height, weight and preferred outfits, if it helps you to visualize the character better. Character sheets should also contain the parts that are essential to making your character who they are – their quest which will be detailed in your main plot, their backstory, greatest fear, and personality or characteristics.
If you are having trouble coming up with ideas for your character sheet, you can try having a look at basic character archetypes and following one of them as a mold. Character archetypes have been documented over the course of human psychological study and you should be able to find some lists and descriptions easily through a search. These archetypes form the basis of the characters we know in folklore and fairy tales, such as the Hero or the damsel in distress. Reading through a description on character archetypes and choosing one for your main character can help with some inspiration for your character sheet.
How would the Hunger Games Trilogy have gone if Katniss Everdeen was just an average archer? Probably not very well. Part of the reason why readers were rooting for her from the start of the story was because of her talent with the bow, but if she was just another Jane Doe who sometimes hit and sometimes missed, chances are she wouldn’t have been very memorable to the audience.
If your main character is just mediocre, chances are they won’t strike much attention, and people won’t care. In real life, most people are usually average, but in a story, every fact you introduce has to have a reason.
As such, if you are going to make a character do something, make them good at it. Alternatively, you could also make them terrible at it, which can be particularly useful for writing comedies.
It doesn’t matter what your character does, as long as they are either really good or really bad at it. In fact, your main character could even be good at being mediocre or bad at trying to be mediocre – as long as there is something about them that the audience notices and remembers.
The character arc is ultimately the whole point of fiction work, this change being the story of humanity. This is usually most noticeable in the main character, but it does not mean your side characters cannot have a character arc as well. As your main character achieves their quest and conquers whatever challenges you have set out for them, they should finish the story being transformed by the journey.
Your characters should have some negative attributes about them as mentioned above. The character arc takes some of these attributes and changes them into positive ones. That’s not all the character arc is about, however – it’s also about how your character impacts the world around them.
It’s also possible to write a negative character arc, where some of the character’s positive traits become negative ones. Not every story has a happy ending, and you may find it more effective to include a negative character arc if your story is about a character going down the road into darkness. Character backstories can also include negative character arcs. One prime example is Maleficent from her namesake movie being betrayed by her childhood friend Stefan, and as a result becoming filled with rage and wanting revenge. There is also Elsa from Frozen, who after accidentally injuring her sister Anna, becomes scared of hurting her further and creates a rift between them.
Can you write a story without a character arc? Well, yes. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has no character arc – he’s the same person at the end of the story that he was at the beginning. However, the story still worked, and people still cheered for the hero. That being said, having a character arc generally brings some closure to the story as people see the characters being changed into better – or worse – versions of themselves. In the end, the change drives the story, and if your characters have a human-like thought process, they would probably have some food for thought after achieving the quest that is so important to them.
Nov 28, 2019