Writing Great Characters: Advice From a Young Author
From guest blogger Lucia Brucoli | Characters are one of, if not the most important creations an author writes in their book. Readers relate with characters much more than with plot points, and a well fleshed-out character can stay with the reader long after they have finished the book. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example: Not all have read the books and out of those who have, not all remember the clues and witnesses, but many have been stricken by this unique and memorable character. Character-driven stories are one of the most popular because of this precise reason: because characters are what move the novel forward. So how can we, as writers, create great characters that will stay with our readers even after they finish the book?
There are thousands of names to choose from, but choosing the right name and the right surname and somehow making them sound well together is a challenge. The main problem I want to discuss here is the type of name we choose for our characters: we usually want our names to reflect our character’s personality, or to show a specific nationality, ethnicity and status. Nationality and ethnicity can be debatable as many cultures have similar names that don’t imply a certain community. As for status, we must remember we didn’t name those characters. The character’s parents did: This means that if there is a perfectly ordinary teen boy in a public school, the best name wouldn’t be Morsideous. It’s best to keep in mind the character’s background and imagine what their parents would name them.
2. PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS
It is so hard to get the content and timing right for character descriptions, and there are so many extremes: Timing, for example: A lengthy description on the first page is way too early and long, but if you include it 35 pages in, the readers may have already formed an image of the character in their mind, and it’ll be no use. Then there’s how the writer delivers: The classic ‘I looked in the mirror’ tactic can get cliché, the description mustn’t be too long and boring, but not even so short and vague that just as you get into the descriptive flair, you interrupt it and write about something else entirely. The best thing would be to sprinkle it across the first 5 pages of your novel. We can still use lines such as the classic ‘I twirled my hair around my finger’ and slip in a description such as ‘I twirled my frizzy ginger hair’. This can be of great use here, because it brings the action forward but also describes the characters.
Characters must be active! Passive characters are mundane and simply unrealistic: who wants to read about someone who just stands there as stuff happens to them? Your characters can’t be insecure and indecisive. ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,’ (Isaac Newton), and we must show that in our stories. There is no story at all without an engaging character, just a simple and boring chain of events. Readers like interactive, reactive characters. And what do both of these words have? Active.
There are some books where it seems like everyone is black and white, good or bad. There are some protagonists who are the image of perfection, with no flaws at all, confronting antagonists which are the reincarnation of pure evil, with no qualities whatsoever. But nobody is pure good or evil: everyone is in-between. For this reason, we writers must try to make all characters (yes, including the villain) have both qualities and defects. This also makes each character more unique, and instead of the battle being good versus bad, it can be a confused mix of emotions battling each other, which is more realistic to day-to-day life. Additionally, writers may include an unusual quirk or a constantly-spoken phrase the characters uses to make them unique, although this mustn’t be overdone and should be used sparingly.
This is especially relevant for the Young Adult genre, but it is something to keep in mind. In many novels, parents and family are either distracted, non-existent or down-right horrible to the characters. I get it, not everyone has the luck to have a smooth relationship with parents, but sometimes this is over-done. When talking about YA, the protagonists are teenagers, which means under adult supervision, so realistically, their decisions should be aligned with the parent’s/guardian’s beliefs. Of course it is possible to have absent or distracted parents, but rarely there are parents who are such villains as they appear in some books. If the book’s plot revolves around the relationship between family then it’s alright, because the writer can describe each person’s personality with more accuracy. But if the plot doesn’t have anything to do with this, then people around the protagonist should notice when something out-of-the-ordinary is going on. Teens in some novels rob banks, form gangs, fight villains, are part of secret societies and the parents/guardians are nowhere to be seen. And this applies to people of other ages as well: at the end of the day, the characters will come home and be in contact with people who care about them such as family, a partner or even just neighbors. The people around the characters will notice if something’s strange, like if the character doesn’t come home for several days and they don’t answer their cellphone, or if they come home in a terrible state. If anything, other character’s reactions could lead to interesting subplots.
Writing memorable, relatable and realistic characters is a challenge writers often face. But an effective way to truly flesh out your characters is to make character profiles, where you jot down things about your characters until they become a fully fleshed-out person. I usually divide the characters into primary, secondary and background characters. The sample charts are available on my website if you’d like to take a look, and feel free to modify them as you please 🙂 Happy creating!
Lucia Brucoli is a middle school student working on her young adult sci-fi novel. She is also working to create a community of teen aspiring writers just like her, a community of people who support, encourage and help each other, working together to be officially called ‘authors’. In her free time, she enjoys watching t.v shows, reading, and of course writing.
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