What do people recall most intensely from a story they’ve read?
Is it the setting? The underlying lesson? The events that took place?
Well, honestly, it does depend on the story. Some short stories or micro stories may not have characters, or those characters may not speak, or they might not do too much, but if we’re talking novels, usually, people love the characters—how they act, react, and interact, either together or with their setting, and the plot, right?
Favorite movie? Thinking of it? Who’s your favorite character? Why?
Favorite T.V. show? Got it? Who’s your favorite character? Why?
Favorite novel? With me? Who’s your favorite character? Why?
Characters are obviously of the utmost importance, but what makes a character great? How do you make a character great? Unforgettable? Good, bad, sly, cunning, ruthless, kind, sweet, whatever?
Before diving into this mess, let me break down my four classes of characters:
The protagonist is the person around whom the story revolves. You may have more than one protagonist. You may be writing a yuuuge series with numerous characters, around all of whom the story builds, but if the story is happening directly to them or through them, they are a protagonist.
The antagonist is the person, or sometimes it can be a place, thing, or even an event, but we’ll be sticking with the idea of a sentient creature for the purpose of this article, from whom the story is revolving.
What I mean is the following:
The protagonist is acting because they must overcome the antagonist. Without the antagonist, the protagonist has no clear cut goal, and without that, you probably have no story.
The support character is the person, or people, probably, who bolsters the protagonist. Not all stories have a support character, but most do. This can be a best friend—Samwise Gamgee—or a lover, a parent, a dog; it doesn’t matter. The support character is basically the person without whom the protagonist cannot complete their mission.
Extras; these are characters who might only have a name, or a title, or a scant description. They may or may not even have a line, but they must exist.
Now, of these four, it stands to reason the protagonist has the most intense description, the most dialogue, the most actions, reactions, and interactions. Obviously, the protagonist requires a personality, some form of individuality. The protagonist must be a real person.
Depending on your specific story, the antagonist might require as much effort as the protagonist, or they might require as much effort as the support character. Even if your antagonist doesn’t make an appearance until the last chapter, that character’s influence is spread throughout most of the book, created by their conflict, and so the antagonist also must be a real person.
The support character normally is more reactive—what they do, or don’t do, is mostly based on the state of the protagonist, so who that person is must be based on the main character. It seems self-evident, but you must carefully consider this point: the support character is built to, wait for it, support the protagonist, and so they must be a perfect match.
This doesn’t mean they get along perfectly and agree on everything. This just means that they do everything the protagonist can’t do on their own. Samwise didn’t just blindly follow Frodo, but he certainly didn’t let Frodo resign himself.
Finally, the extras are just that. Sometimes they might have a name, a scant description, and a line or two. Sometimes, they have a title like the officer, and they just perform a single action. These are people that have to exist in order for the other characters to act, react, and interact.
Alright, let’s begin with developing the protagonist.
Your main dude/dudette needs a name, a description, sure, you know that. That’s obvious, but what they really need to be real people is a demeanor, mannerisms, choice words or phrases. They need to act and speak in a certain way that no one else does. They also need to begin one way and end in a different way.
What do I mean?
If you’re writing a sci-fi thriller and your protagonist is a heavily praised and accomplished captain of their own starship, how will they grow?
No, you don’t need to start them as an ensign or whatever; they can be a captain with numerous commendations, but they must have some form of weakness to overcome, which means that by the end of your tale, they have grown…they have developed; they will be different.
How do you do that? Through their actions, reactions, and interactions with the story, the plot, the setting, the other characters, but how do you make them into real people?
I have one simple tip that will serve you well for every character you ever write.
You have a best friend, right? A significant other? A parent? A sibling? Someone???
Watch that person. Watch how they move. Look at their face and their expressions. Listen to how their voice changes when they speak, when they get emotional. Pay close attention to their choice of words. I know a girl who, like, puffs up when she feigns anger, like she gets on her toes and kind of blows her cheeks out a little as if she were going to beat me up or something; it’s terribly cute.
Then, all you have to do is make sure that no other characters in your story behave the same way as the protagonist.
For example, in my series, The Adventures of Larson and Garrett, obviously both guys are protagonists, but only Garrett places his chin in his hands during ruminations. Only Garrett raps the table or counter with his fingers. These little, tiny things make that person real and distinct.
Only Larson interjects the fragment “I mean” into his conversations on a regular basis. Yes, some others might use that fragment to clarify, but Larson uses it to gather his thoughts. He’s also much more deadpan than other characters. His humor is different. People have different senses of humor…or none at all... Larson also tends to be more explosive; he gets angrier more easily.
Your characters should be based on real people, or you can at least base them on movie characters. No, don’t plagiarize, but borrow a mannerism or choice phrase. In my Lokians series, only Marty ever ended sentences with “Ya’ heard?”
Naturally, the most important factor pertinent to the protagonist is growth and that can happen in any number of ways. Let’s stick with the starship captain.
He’s the bomb during the first chapter, but then the aliens blow his ship to dust, and he’s the sole survivor. Obviously, he can’t just go on his merry way; he’ll have demons—psychological ones—he should begin to doubt himself, explode on others, or himself, suffer from nightmares, indecision, whatever.
Maybe, he’s not the bomb at the onset. Maybe, he just made captain and he’s uncertain when it comes to leading his new crew. You have to be able to show, not tell, his deliberations, or his overconfidence, or whatever his issue is, but here’s the kicker:
You know someone, or have seen a character, like your protagonist—someone who shrugs indifferently when trying to hide their lack of knowledge or expertise; they then run into a situation and foul it all up.
Your antagonist can be much more difficult to bring to life; for the most part, they will probably just be an effect throughout the bulk of the story.
The captain’s starship was blown to dust because the antagonist sent someone to storm a colony on an asteroid and your protagonist was just there at the wrong time, so after surviving, he has to rebuild himself, gather a new team, and determine who was responsible for what, and that’s your story.
Still, there will likely be a confrontation at the end of the story, right? This is when you reveal the antagonist who never truly develops. The antagonist is either the mirror image of the final stages of the protagonist, or they will be the exact opposite of the final stages of the protagonist, but they can’t be some punk who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
The trick to developing the antagonist should lie within the story, really…especially if it turns out to be the support character! Dun, dun duuun!!!
Your support character will most likely lack a need for development. They will usually be consistent throughout the story, although their love for the protagonist may grow or weaken. I always go back to Samwise for support characters because he was really one of the best ever crafted…and I don’t even like LotR.
Samwise is consistent throughout, but his love for Frodo intensifies as the story progresses. They start off as great friends, but by the end, Samwise is willing to die for his friend’s success, and, of course, Samwise is nothing like Frodo, is he?
I also want to include Ron Weasley. I don’t care for Harry Potter, but Ron was a phenomenal character who began his career as a support character; he even threw his life away in that chess match, which thankfully he survived. Unlike most support characters, and because the series was so long, Ron had a chance to develop and become a protagonist, so consider these things when writing your support character.
Finally, we have the extras. They don’t really need much. You can just use them as a framing device, or you can use them in order to give your protagonist a chance to act, react, and interact, thus revealing more and more of their speech, mannerisms, and emotion.
You see, these guys don’t develop, but they force your staple characters to develop. Use every chance you get. Every time your characters have to act, react, or interact with people, places, or things, they should be revealing more and more of themselves, or solidifying their individuality through consistent behavior.
One last thing I want to cover, I hope, will really help to bring to light why people watching is important. I was on Quora and someone asked how they should write an older character. It was really a great question.
Older people belong to an older generation, unless you’re old, too... In that case, your fellow youngsters belong to a new generation and I promise you, you practically live in different worlds, but I’m going to present my premise as though you’re young…just follow me:
If you have an older family member, watch them. Watch how they move. Listen to their speech inflection. Look at how they move when they talk. Watch their mannerisms. Once you have a few distinctions, watch a movie with older actors; take the parts you like and give them to the old dude, then just write the story.
Don't focus on making the old guy too different; just get the whole story down. By the time you're at the end, the old guy will have developed of his own accord and anything that's inconsistent can be fixed during the editing process.
What’s going to be important to note is the vast dissimilarity between that old person, how they dress, what they say, how they feel, how their arms shake when they force their way off a chair, and people who are 20, 30, 40, 50 years younger.
The thing to take away from all this is understanding that the story is happening through your characters. Think about your life. You are who you are because of the experiences you’ve undergone. Your story was happening to you. A different story has happened to your mom, dad, son, BFF, SO, whatever; that’s why they’re different; that’s why sometimes you don’t understand why they do what they do. Your characters should be the same; they shouldn’t all just be an extension of you.
Use them to argue with each other. Use them to verbally plan out the next mission. Use them to relate thoughts and emotions.
Thanks for reading. I hope this helps you out. For more tips like this one, check out my book, How to Become a Successful Writer: Secrets the Mainstream Publishers Don't Want You to Know.
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Why don’t publishing companies want you to know these secrets? Publishers run an exclusive good ole’ boy club, and in doing so, they choose who they help to succeed, and who they help to fail, but when you learn these secrets, you’ll know that no writer needs a publisher in today’s internet age. Bypassing a publishing company not only allows you to maintain control and earn the bulk of your income, but it relegates the old, dinosaur, publishing companies to obscurity.
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