There’s an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where he and Patrick find a magic pencil that allows anything drawn with it to come to life. After horsing around with mustaches, fake money, and a parodic version of Squidward, SpongeBob comes up with DoodleBob — a poorly-drawn version of himself that speaks only in yells and grunts and ends up trying to take over.
Characters in a story are a bit like that, if they’re done properly. You mess around a bit and then, before you know it, they’ve developed free will and run off screaming, ruining all of your well-laid plans for their story.
Good characters — the kind that are not only realistic, but are as multidimensional as real people — are the lifeblood of a story. Characters drive the plot of your story and they give the reader a reason to, you know, read the story. Most of us avid readers can rattle off a list of our favorite characters, even if we haven’t read a certain book in years. Some of my childhood favorites were Samantha Parkington from the American Girl series, Patsy, Margaret, and Hattie from various Dear America diaries; Mary-Anne from The Babysitter’s Club, and, more recently, characters like Ron Weasley, Isobel Fairfax, and Kinsey Millhone.
Characters stick with us long after the story fades away. As readers, hey become our “friends” in a way. As writers, they can be our best friends or sworn enemies, or anything in between.
Some characters come to us fully formed, with names and backstory and that weird little quirk that makes them unique. Sometimes, we are given only a block of personality marble and we have to painstakingly carve out the character inside. Often, we get to a point in the story where suddenly, we realize something we never knew about the character, but which makes perfect sense. Characters keep us up at night and are a source of terrible frustration oftentimes.
If you have characters who are dull, flat, inconsistent, uninteresting, or that fail to make themselves useful and worth writing about, your story will fail to launch no matter how brilliant your prose or amazing your plot is. That’s why creating good characters is so important, and the reason I refuse to pick up Madame Bovary ever again.
Some writers prefer to start with characters, while others come up with a plot and then build a character to suit it. Either way is fine, so long as the two work together seamlessly. I tend to work with characters first, building my plot step by step asking, “What would happen if Character X did…?” Whatever you prefer, characters need to always follow some guidelines:
- They should always be consistent. It doesn’t matter if your character is a wimp, a hero, a whiny teenager, a corporate jerk, or a homeless man who sleeps in the back of McDonald’s, just keep him/her consistent throughout the story. Wimps who suddenly jump in front of speeding trains to rescue kittens are as baffling as the corporate jerks who suddenly throw away their PDAs and hand out cash at a local shelter. If your character is going to become a radically different person, it should happen after appropriately radical plot events
- They should be multidimensional. Characters need to be life-like, which means they need to have a more in-depth personality than, “short temper, loves classical music and red wine.” The exact amount of character depth needed will be proportional to the story’s plot and it’s length, but you should have a good idea of the inside of your character as well as the outside — what does he love, what does he need, what does he want? What fears or goals drive your character, what makes him get out of bed in the morning? How would he react to common situations, such as being asked on a date, getting fired from his job, etc., etc.?
- They should not fit a mold. Nothing is worse than a story with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, or someone so unbelievably predictable you have them figured out after the first three pages. Stories are unique, people are unique, and characters should be unique, too.