“Characters are the lifeblood of any good book.” – Craig Hart
I whole-heartedly agree with this quote (no pun intended), as both a reader and a writer. As a reader, if the characters don’t engage me I’m not likely to enjoy the book. As a writer, if the characters aren’t working then the story doesn’t work. This means that characters are perhaps the most important aspect of a book, and as writers we need to put a lot of attention into them. As I mentioned in my previous prep post, I’m a firm believer in the value of developing almost every character in a book as deeply as possible, and the advice I share below is applicable to any character in your story, be they the protagonist, the antagonist, or a side character.
Give your character a goal
Every character in your story who has any significance should have a driving goal. Knowing your characters’ goals can help you figure out conflict between them as their goals conflict or as their goals align but the characters themselves don’t like each other or as they do something they’d rather not because it’s the best way to achieve their goal. Their goal should be big enough for them to consider doing just about anything to achieve it. (Which is not to say that they should compromise on their values, but the goal should be powerful enough for them to struggle with the temptation of compromising to achieve it.) On the flip side, it can also be a motivation for them to be better. Nissa from The Shadow Raven wants to prove to her guardian that she can do just fine without him (or anyone else) and she wants to prove that she’s better than anyone else, which leads to her making a lot of poor choices throughout the book (some of which undermine her beliefs without her realizing). Detren wants to be as good a king as his father was, which both leads to him hiding from his responsibility when he feels incapable and also urges him to be better later on and do what his father would have done.
Give your character a motivation
Generally a character’s motivation for their goal is something that comes from their past (as I’ve written about before), and it should be a powerful driving memory or fear or desire that makes their goal as strong as it is. Nissa wants to prove that she’s fine on her own because she’s been rejected by far too many people and wants to prove to herself as much as anyone else that that doesn’t bother her. Detren wants to be as good a king as his father because he wants to make his father proud and also fears letting down the people of Roenor. Characters could want to redeem themselves from mistakes they’ve made in the past (like Catessa from The Last Assassin) or fear letting people down (like Detren, or Coraline from The King’s Paladin) or want to prove they’re better than someone (perhaps a historical figure, or perhaps a rival as in the case of Jerod from The King’s Paladin). Make sure the motivation has an anchor.
Give your character flaws
No one wants to read about a perfect character. Near-perfect, maybe, but not perfect. Everyone has flaws, some bigger than others, and readers can’t relate to perfectly flawless characters. Nissa’s main flaw is her pride, followed by her vanity. Detren’s is his fear of being inadequate, which drives him to hide from his responsibilities when they become too overwhelming.
Your character’s flaw should tie in with their goal. For instance, Nissa’s pride keeps her plugging away at her goal and causes her to succumb to it, and Detren’s causes him to buckle when confronted with his goal to begin with. Your character’s flaw should be something that inclines them to compromise to reach their goal, or which keeps them from completing their goal, which they’ll have to overcome at some point in order to reach their goal or which may teach them over time that they don’t really want what they thought they wanted. Nissa’s goal is to prove that she doesn’t need anyone in order to hide the fact – even from herself – that she deeply craves connection, and the steps she takes to achieve her original goal eventually lead her down a road that shows her she’s been running this whole time from what she really wants.
Your character’s flaws, motivations, and goals should all be interconnected for them to be the most impactful.
This is just the bare bones of your character, and there’s a lot more that should be developed, but beginning with these three will send you well on your way to having a deeply developed character.
What’s your favorite thing about creating characters? What area is the hardest for you to develop?