1. A Personality
This seems rather obvious, sure — in a way it’s like saying, “What makes a really good tree is that it has an essential treeness” — but just the same, it bears mentioning. Because some characters read like cardboard. They’re like white crayon on white paper. Sure, the characters run around and they do shit and say shit but none of it has anything to do with character and has everything to do with plot — as if the characters are just another mechanism to get to the next action sequence, the next plot point, the next frazza wazza wuzza buzza whatever. Point is: your character needs a personality, and the rest of this list should help you get there.
The character should run an advertising agency. *is handed a note* Oh! Oh. I mean, The character should belong to the FBI and– *gets another note* JESUS CHRIST WITH THE NOTES, PEOPLE. But fine, yes, okay, I get it now. Agency means that the character is active, not passive. The character makes decisions and is attempting to control her own destiny as an independent operator within the story. She is not a leaf in the stream but rather the rock that breaks the river. *receives one more note* Oh, thank you, what a wonderful note! I do agree my beard is sexy, yes. I know! So rich! So full! So shiny. I oil it with secretions from squeezed ermine scent glands which also lends it that musky zing that sort of… crawls up your nose. *flicks beard sweat at you*
Characters want things. They need things. They are motivated by these desires and requirements and they spend an entire story trying to fulfill them. That’s one of the base level components of a story: a character acts in service to his motivations but obstacles (frequently other characters) stand in his way. We need to know what impels a character. What are her motives? If we don’t know or cannot parse those motivations, her role in the story is alien to us.
Everybody’s afraid of something. Death. Taxes. Bees. Dogs. Love. Carnival workers. Ocelots. (I am afraid of the number 34 and the color “puce.”) Characters \ suffer from their own personal fears relevant to the story at hand. Characters without fear are basically robots who use their pneumatic doom-claws to puncture any sense of engagement and belief we have in the story you’ve created. The great thing about being a storyteller isn’t just giving characters fear — it’s ensuring that that their fears will arise and be present in the tale at hand. You shall be cruel. This cruelty shall be great fun and a veritable giggle-fest because storytellers are dicks.
5. Internal Conflict
“I am in love with Steve, but I also love my job as a diplomat to the Raccoon People of the Hollow Earth. But Steve is allergic to raccoons! But I may be the only person who can stop the Raccoon People from invading Canada! BY THE GODS WHAT SHALL I DO?” Great characters suffer from internal conflict. They don’t know what they want. Or how to get all the things they want. Position your characters between the Scylla and Charybdis of hard choices: choices that compete with one another. Giving characters these emotional, intellectual, soul-testing conundrums is sweet meat for the audience — the meat of conflict, the meat of drama. Further, it allows us to relate to these characters (as we all have to make hard choices) and gives us a reason to keep reading (because we want to know the character’s choices in the face of these inner conflicts).
6. External Conflict
Hey, external conflict is pretty cool, too. If the character is plagued by an old war wound, a damaged spaceship, a mysterious old villain who shows up to perform surgical karate on the character, all good. Doubly good if the external conflict matches or speaks to the internal conflict in some way. Say, for instance, an author who is addicted to slathering his beard with illicit ermine scent glands is also pursued by a very angry ermine scent gland dealer named Vito who would apparently like his money. Just an example. With no basis in reality. *runs*
7. Connections To Other Characters
That “lone-wolf ronin-without-clan” shit gets tiresome pretty quick. Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds. Friends. Family. Acquaintances. Work buddies. Foes. Neighbors. Drug dealers. Enslaved Pokemon. Sentient snowglobes. Sex androids. Microscopic beard civilizations. You know. The usual.
8. Connections To Us, The Audience
We respond well to those characters who contain a little bit of us. We want to relate to them. The best characters are a broken mirror: we want to see ourselves reflected back, if in a distorted, unexpected way. We want to connect with them using that weird empathic psychic tendon where we tie together our shared traits or universal life experiences like we’re those humanoid blue goat-cat motherfuckers from Avatar. Young adult fiction is written with teenage protagonists experiencing teenage protagonist problems because it’s written for that audience. (And it’s why adults still can read those books comfortably — because adults remember being a teenager.) The reader wants a new story, but she wants an old story, too: her own.
9. Nuance And Complexity
Shitty one-note characters are a Taco Bell product: manufactured unfrozen gray-meat red-sauce in a proportioned somewhat-maybe-kinda-tortilla. They’re good for a quick bite and a hard purge (remember: you do not buy Taco Bell, you rent Taco Bell and then return it to its ecosystem with a couple flushes). Great characters are a nuanced meal: from an aperitif to the amuse-bouche to the first and second course, all the way through to the monkey course and the molecular gastronomy course, to coffee, dessert, and then ritual suicide. Each bite has complexity. Like sipping a fine wine or a great cup of coffee, you taste things that aren’t expected, that go beyond that word coffee or wine. (“I taste figs and fireplace ash, and a little after-hint of the tears from a griefstruck slow loris.”) A good character is complex because that means they are like — gasp! — real people. Real people who are not easily summed up or predicted. Real people with layers and surprises and who are a little bit good and a little bit bad and a whole lotta interesting.
10. Strengths: To Be Good At Something
Characters who have absolutely zero MAD SKILLZ are dull as a sack of frozen poached hippo meat. We like to read about characters who are good at something. “I’m the best damn werewolf veterinarian you ever did see.” “You need a speech pathologist for velociraptors, then you need me.” “I’m a cop who is also a robot and they call me OFFICERBOT wait that doesn’t sound cool.” You want characters who are capable or even exceptional: Sherlock isn’t a mediocre detective. Buffy isn’t just some half-ass vampire-puncher — she’s the goddamn Slayer. RANGER RICK ISN’T JUST SOME FUCKING RACCOON, MAN. This doesn’t have to be limited to actual skills or talents, mind — a character’s strength can be internal. It can be intellectual or emotional. Or it can be that she can knock a dude’s head off his shoulders with one fast punch.
11. Flaws: To Be Bad At Something
Sherlock is an amazing detective, and a terrible human. Buffy’s a bonafide bad-ass, but she’s also a glib, impulsive teenage girl. Ranger Rick the raccoon can ranger like a motherfucker, but he’s also got a bad addiction to Meow-Meow and a penchant for losing all his ranger paycheck at the Indian casino. Characters can be good at things but they can’t be too good — you need balance. If they’re the best at something, they should also be the worst at something. Conflict lives here; the space between Sherlock being the best detective and the worst human is so taut with tension the potential story might snap and take out someone’s eye. Plus, on a practical level, someone who is good at everything, bad at nothing is boring and unbelievable.
12. A Voice
I don’t mean this in a literal sense — “NO DEAF-MUTES ALLOWED” — I mean that, your character has to sound like your character. A unique voice, a combination of how she speaks and what she says when she does. When you write her dialogue, we should have no doubt who is speaking, even if the dialogue tags were eaten by some kind of bibliovore creature. What kinds of things does she say? Why does she say them? What does she sound like? Does her way of speaking reflect where she grew up or reflect her trying to get away from where she grew up? Is her mother’s voice in there somewhere? Her father’s? Is she brash and bold — or hesitant, reserved? How do all these things reflect who she actually is?
13. A Look
Put me in the camp where characters should look like someone or something. Some writing advice suggests that an author let her characters act as physical ciphers — zero description so that, jeez, I dunno, we can all imprint upon them or imagine them as whoever we want them to be. Fuck that shit, George. I’m not saying we need to hear about every chipped fingernail, eyelash, or skin tag — but pick a few stark details and make the character stand out. And let those details reveal to us something about the character, too. The perfect suit but the dirty shoes. The hair buzzed so flat you could land a chopper on top of it. The rime of blood under his nails. Whatever. What’s the character’s look, and what can it tell us about him?
A character without emotion is a soulless automaton. They don’t need to reveal those emotions to the world around them, but they should reveal them to you as author and to the reader, as well. Characters feel things! They feel sorrow. And shame. And bliss. They feel itchy and hungry and confused and so angry they could crumple a vending machine like it’s a can of soda. They run the gamut like, oh, I dunno, real people. And the thing is, you can use these emotional responses to highlight for us who the characters are. They encounter something that should make them happy but it makes them sad instead — that’s a telling moment for the character. Why does this thing that would make everyone else happy make him want to cry and punch a cabinet instead?
Questions drive narrative. We continue reading sometimes just to answer questions. Who killed Mrs. Pennytickle? Who stole the Shih-Tzu of Darkness and for what nefarious purpose? What happens next? The audience is driven in part by the need to answer mysteries. Thing is, the audience and the characters have a kind of narrative quantum entanglement; the same things that draw us through a story are the same things that urge a character forward, too. We want to solve the murder same as the cantankerous detective does. Give the character questions that are unanswered — variables in her equation that she is driven to complete.
It goes the other way, too. Just as a character has questions, he also has answers — answers that he never wants to share with anyone, answers that would be otherwise known as secrets. Heroic secrets. Dark secrets. Sexy secrets. Weird secrets. Underpants secrets. The character knows things that he doesn’t want revealed (creating complexity for the character and tension for the reader).
17. Humongous Genitals
The character’s vagina should be large enough to wolf down a small motorcycle. The character’s penis should be large enough to fell ancient trees with one hefty hip pivot. Characters must possess both sets of enormous genitals OKAY JUST SEEING IF YOU’RE PAYING ATTENTION.
17. The Ability To Surprise
The moment a character loses the ability to surprise us, they might as well be a dead body floating down a slow moving river. That’s not to say a character should be unpredictable on every page — “I killed a man! Now I’m starting a churro shop! Now I own a parrot! Now I’m gonna eat the parrot and jump into this howling chasm and die! EEEEeeeeeeeee.” But a character should always be able to still do something that makes us double-take and pump our fists in triumph or drop our jaws in shock. And it’s not just about action, either: it’s about showing surprising depths of emotion, or cleverness, or capability. It’s about the character being so much more than what we expect: a secret forest hidden beneath the cloud cover.
And yet at the same time, those surprises shouldn’t also come out of left-field, either. Think of it like the reveal of a murderer in a murder-mystery story. You want that murderer to be revealed in a way where the story outsmarted you and yet, it still makes sense, right? You don’t want it to be, “Oh, and the murderer was actually Doctor Piotr Dongwick, the pharmacologist who you’ve never met or heard of and are just meeting now and this is basically the narrative equivalent of ROCKS FALL EVERYBODY DIES.” Characters are that way, too. When they reveal something about themselves or surprise us, it should be a thing that has us nodding our head — not scratching it like a confused chimp. We should be saying “wow!” now “wut?”
19. Small Quirks
I’m not saying every character needs to be a variant of Zooey Deschanel — besides, she is the quirkiest little quirk that ever did quirk and you cannot beat her at her own game. SHE EATS TOMATO SOUP IN THE RAIN WITH FOUR BABY GOATS ALL NAMED “OLIVER.” Whatever. Quirks can be an amateurish way of giving your character depth — in part because it’s artifice that doesn’t create any depth at all. Still, while quirks are no substitute for actual character traits, they are useful in small doses when a) letting the character stand out in our mind and b) lending some depth of character through a seemingly shallow expression. A character who always fidgets with, say, a coin or a pen or a pair of dice may seem like a one-off blah-blah detail, but later it can be revealed that this single, simple act is bound up to some tragic event in the character’s life (“MY MOTHER WAS KILLED BY A PAIR OF DICE” okay maybe not that, but you get the idea).
Your character didn’t just come karate-punching her way out of some storytelling womb. She wasn’t born pale and featureless like a grub only to grow her wings and limbs halfway through the tale. The character’s been around. Whether she’s 17 or 70, she has history. She has life. Stories. Things that happened to her and things that she did. First kiss! First breakup! First sexual experience! First drunk, first hangover, first AA meeting, first BDSM orgy, first spaceflight. That time Billy Grosbeak tried to grab her boob and she broke his nose. The other time she got fired from her coffeehouse counter-monkey job for spitting in some chode’s caramel macchiato. That time she did the thing with the girl at that place. What we see of a character in a story is just the tippy-top of the iceberg, just a nipple poking out of the water while the rest of the body remains submerged. Don’t let your characters be tabula rasa — some blank slate devoid of history.
21. The Right Name
This may seem a shallow point, but boy does a character’s name matter. You don’t just pick it out of a hat — it has to be the right name, in the same way that you want the right name for a child, or a dog, or that mole on your inner thigh (mine is “Benedict Arnold”). Like, “Bob Stevens” is not the name of a steampunk secret agent. “Miss Permelia Graceyfeather” is not the name of a motel maid from Tucson. You’ve got to find the right name. And, also of importance, a name that doesn’t sound like the name of another character in your book. You don’t want readers confused, nor do you want them conjuring a character from a whole other book or movie when reading yours.
22. Room to Grow
Characters grow and change. Okay, fine — not all of them do, an in certain modes of storytelling a stagnant flatlining character arc is sadly a feature and not a bug. But just the same, the most interesting characters are the ones who at least have the capability of change, who are part of an unfulfilled arc that is unseen but keenly felt. Readers want to go on that journey with a character. They want to go along for the ride: breakups and marriages and babies and revenge and redemption and resurrection. Some animals grow only as big as their cages — so give your character room to move around, yeah? Give them scope! Envision for them an (incomplete) arc!
I am fond of saying that what matters about a character isn’t that we like them but that we can live with them — meaning, if we’re gonna be hunkering down with that character for 400 pages of a book, or two hours of a movie, or a year’s worth of comic books, that character has to be someone we are willing and able to spend time with. They don’t have to be our pal. We’re not asking them for a ride to the airport or help moving into our new apartment. They have to be someone we can — and want! — to spend our time with in the narrative sense. How do you accomplish this? Well…
You do this by giving them gravity. Making them as big and as interesting as can be so they draw us to them — like moths to a flame, like meteors to the earth, like cat hair to a new sweater. The greatest crime you can commit against your character and your reader is making them boring.
A good character needs you. You’re the champion, here. You’re the motherfucking engine of creation that will bring this character to life with the eye-watering boozy muse-breath of your drunken imagination. You are a very special ingredient indeed, young captain. See, the idea goes that no story is original, and maybe that translates to character, too. But you are an original. And the way you do things — the way you arrange old elements of story and character — is something wholly your own, provided you let yourself off the leash, provided you’re willing to smear your guts all over the page. You can bring something fucking amazing to every character you write: yourself. The character doesn’t exist without you. You are the puppeteer. You are parent and deity. So go, create. Give them life. Give them soul. Give them character. And then kick their ass.
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