Four Crucial Insights to Help Writers Create Better CharactersJul 28, 2022
As writers, we know that the most important part of any story is character. At the end of the day, our readers won’t care about the plot or about how cleverly your story is executed if they don’t care about who that story is happening to. It’s the characters, the characters, the characters that matter. But what makes an audience fall in love with a character, or what is it about those characters that make us so emotionally invested in them, even though we know they aren’t real? It’s because characters are better than real in several important ways.
1. We know them in a way we could never know a real person.
When things are better than real, it means they’ve surpassed the real thing. In this case, story characters are better than real people because they’re safer to emotionally invest in. Real people are dangerous. They’re always changing. We can never really be sure who they are. But we can have a certainty about our story characters that we can never have about real people in real life. We know who they are.
There’s something mystical that happens when we feel like we know someone. It produces in us some sort of involuntary emotional attachment. The more we know them, the more we can’t help but to love them, even when they’ve done bad things. This is because true knowledge necessarily includes understanding. We’re able to see WHY they do what they do. We understand their motives and all the nuances that feed their choices, which breeds empathy for their suffering.
It also breeds enjoyment. Think about it. The more we know something, the more enjoyment we derive from that thing. This means that our job is to make sure our characters are consistent. The audience must believe that the choices they make—their behavior—is consistent with the type of person they are. There’s nothing worse than reading a story and thinking, “No way. So-and-so would never do that.” We know if a character would or would not do a certain thing, because we know them. So, make your characters consistent, which will ensure that they’re knowable, which will automatically make them more accessible, more dependable, more comprehensible, and more enjoyable. At every turn, they’ll be better.
2. The lives of our characters are way more exciting.
On top of this, we live through them vicariously since their lives are clearly more interesting and exciting. Every moment in story world keeps us on the edge of our seats. Normal life isn’t like this. If it was, we would all die of heart attacks. But in story, everything that happens is either exciting right now, on the verge of being exciting, or just coming down from being exciting, and already revving up for more excitement!
The name of the game in story is to constantly keep your characters in a heightened state of conflict. Each scene must build suspense or add tension to keep everyone on edge, including us. We should never see our characters doing boring stuff unless those moments are meant to raise the tension or the stakes. If we see them sleeping, then either something happens in their dreams that takes the character into a heightened state, or something happens in the room that takes them into a heightened state. The “boring” parts must be used as a device to build suspense, otherwise you skip it. Real life is tedious, dull, and mundane. But the lives of story characters are exciting, which is why they’re better than real.
3. Characters are compressed in time.
Stories deal with a specific time frame. You must choose a particular segment of that character’s life that stands alone as relevant or important. You can’t try to fit in every single detail. Even stories about true historical figures don’t try to cram in every aspect of that person’s existence. If they did, the story would be all over the place. It wouldn’t even make sense. Their lives are just too big to try to include every single event. So, we select one event -- one particular time frame -- that we’re going to milk for everything it’s worth. A specific season of life with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
4. Their lives are vetted for our entertainment.
We also filter out anything that isn’t relevant or necessary to the story. There’s nothing superfluous or unneeded. The selection of details must fit the story you’re telling, which gives us a sense of order, as opposed to the messiness of real life.
Furthermore, the heart of every story is a personal paradox. There’s nothing new under the sun. But since it’s the person the story is happening to that matters, the details matter more. The details are what make those characters real to us. They’re what excite us and draw us in. We connect more deeply when the ideas are specific and precise. We don’t connect deeply when stories are communicated in bland, generic terms, or when the language or mythology is vague or ambiguous. You want to paint a picture that’s vivid and specific, and choose the parts of their lives that matter, rather than selecting random details that don’t play into the narrative. The details you choose will help the audience create a better picture in their mind’s eye and will make the story come alive to your audience.
Yes, characters are constructed. No, they don’t really exist. But when you create great characters, they’ll feel real to the audience, and more importantly, they’ll be better than real. Start with the principles we’ve laid out here, and you’ll be well on your way to creating better characters for your stories.