Make Your Characters Unforgettable

As a developmental editor for women’s fiction, I often see books-in-progress that have an intriguing premise and carefully laid out plotlines, but still fall flat because little thought has been given to character development.

No one enjoys “cardboard characters” that are nothing more than a few attributes pulled together to fit the plot, maybe with the odd facial tic or set of dimples thrown in.

Here are my tips for creating credible characters who will live and breathe on the page.

  1. Give Them a Voice

    If you want your fictional characters to be real to the reader, they must first become viscerally real to YOU.

    As the author, you need to go beyond defining their mannerisms, way of speaking or habits, all of which must be carefully drawn. You must also understand what happened in their past and what’s vital to them now.

    These personas, born of your imagination, subconscious influences and life experiences, will evolve to become entities in themselves. As such, they must be allowed their own voice.

    One way to tap into them once they are fully formed is through dialogue. You can mentally ask them questions (e.g. on how to handle a particular scene) and then listen for answers. Or write out a question-and-answer “interview.” I am always amazed at the ideas and directions which my characters suggest.

    You may also need to dig deep within yourself to connect with what they are feeling. Maybe you were never in a bank robbery, but you had something stolen once, and remember how that felt.
  2. Provide a Significant Goal

    Consider your main character’s overall goal or purpose. It must be big enough for an entire novel and also lead to substantial events. To arouse reader sympathy, it helps if your character must sacrifice something or suffer hardship before getting what she wants.

    Ask yourself:
    – why is your protagonist’s goal so important to her?
    – is she truly deterred from achieving it?
    – what are the consequences if she doesn’t get what she wants? (we need high stakes)

    It will widen your story’s appeal if achieving this goal also benefits others. This could be family, the community or even the world at large. (See example of a larger purpose in the description below.)

    Where the Crawdads Sing, a cross-genre debut novel, recently swept the bestseller lists. I read it to find out why.

    Kya’s plight elicits our sympathy from the start. She’s only six when her mother leaves their home in an isolated coastal marshland in North Carolina, her face as battered as the suitcase she carries. For years, the girl waits for her return. She grows up in a shack without indoor plumbing or electricity, her only human contact a violent father. When he stops coming home, Kya must fend for herself. Barefoot and poorly dressed, she’s marginalized by town folk, who tauntingly call her the Marsh Girl.

    Her bigger purpose? Kya’s connection with Nature becomes her refuge as well as her offering to the world. In her solitude, she remains fascinated with the creatures that share the swampland with her. Her painstaking research into their habits and collections of birds’ nests, feathers and shells eventually lead to her recognition as a regional wildlife expert.

    We are inspired by Kya’s resourcefulness and ability to survive … and by her larger purpose.
  3. Increase Tension (inner and outer conflict)

    Emotional tension is the invisible thread that pulls your readers along. If your lead character is someone they identify with and you just painted her into a corner with no way out, you’re golden!

    Apart from outer conflict (obstacles to her goal, then complications), your protagonist must deal with what this triggers in herself. Her internal struggle is just as vital to your story as its dramatic events. Narratives become more compelling when they bring up the heroine’s greatest fears and force her to face them.

    Other sources of inner conflict (examples):
    – opposing loyalties (to people or causes)
    – inability to let go
    – current events trigger past trauma
    – a mistaken belief or misconception
  4. Make Your Heroine Slightly Flawed

    No one is perfect – especially the most-loved characters in our novels. Many years ago, I read Gone with the Wind. What I remember to this day is the impetuousness of Scarlett O’Hara, who constantly yearned for someone she could not have (Ashley) and failed to appreciate the man she married (Rhett Butler). I also recall her sheer grit and determination to save her plantation.

    So give your heroine admirable qualities but also at least one flaw. Make her stretch beyond her limitations to meet difficulties head-on: this will take her out of the ordinary.

  5. Get Up Close and Personal

    Using “deep” point of view (whether first person or deep third) for your main character allows us to experience her at a more intimate level.

    For scenes told from her perspective, provide the reader with her impressions by filtering the unfolding events and even the setting itself through her. What she sees and feels will likely trigger an emotional reaction that is expressed physically or in her thoughts.

Give your protagonist some real challenges and then notch it up. You’re competing with series streaming on TV, movies and all the other novels out there. You can’t afford to do boring or to write about a weak heroine.

Developing unique and fully-fleshed characters requires focus, a rich inner world, and lots of practice. The payoff? A story that comes alive and characters that readers will remember long after they turn the last page.

Thelma Mariano