Good stories are about developed characters in a certain plot. What seems like a common-sense statement is actually difficult to put into practice. It does not matter what elements your story contains–the most exciting adventure, the most heinous crime, the most shocking ending–if your characters do not inspire emotions in the reader. Without a genuine emotional connection with your characters, your readers will not be invested in your plot. At the same time, it is difficult to read a long story with well-developed characters if those characters do not actually do anything. Without seeing your characters face some exciting choice or struggle, your readers will lose interest in your story.
As you can see, both characters and plot are important to any good book. However, it is also true that characters are simply more difficult to develop than interesting plot lines. Any aspect of everyday life can make a riveting plot. For example, one day your character decides to take the subway to work instead of the bus. As he is exiting the subway, he notices a book fall out of a woman’s bag. He picks it up and tries to get her attention, but the station is crowded and he loses her before returning the book. He holds on to the book, flipping through it at work wondering who the woman might be. A bookmark falls out from between the pages with a note scribbled on it which says “Cassie, 7:30 at Maria’s diner.” The man goes on a hunt to return the book to this woman, and all of a sudden you have a story of adventure, twists, and intrigue that is spawned by the simple choice to take the subway instead of the bus.
Plotlines are everywhere and can be harvested from the most mundane choices. However, the most important thing to note about this example is that the story is only interesting if the characters are well developed. Who is the man? Why does he care so much about returning this book to this woman? If the audience can connect to the characters then they will connect to the story, no matter how ordinary it may seem.
You may find yourself wondering, “Okay, I buy it, but how can I find characters an audience will connect to?” Do not worry, we’ve got you covered. This article will provide you with three simple ways to find characters your audience will connect to, and offer tips for developing the characters just enough to make your story come alive.
1. Look inside yourself. No, seriously. While this may sound corny, you are a real person with real experiences that are relatable to more people than you probably assume. Say you have a plot idea, and you are wondering how to develop the main character around it, ask yourself questions like, “what would I do in this situation if I were a little more _____?” Fill in the blank with different emotions that are realistic and relatable. For example, what would I do in this situation if I were a little braver, or a little more fearful? How would I make this choice if I had just had my heart broken by a long-time lover?
This is the easiest way to develop a character because you know yourself better than you know anyone else. You do not have to guess at your own motivations or your own insecurities because you live them every day. In all honesty, it takes a rare amount of skill to write a story from the perspective of characters you share no commonalities with; and readers will struggle to connect with your characters if you can’t do it first. If you find your plot stalling, or its resolution unbelievable, it is likely because you haven’t quite understood how your characters would respond to the given situation.
Think about the example of the man on the subway finding the book. How would you respond if you saw an attractive woman (or man) drop a book as they were getting off the subway? Well, I would probably just leave it on the ground and keep moving. Okay, but what would you do if you were a little more addicted to romance novels? I might wonder for the rest of the day if it could have been fate trying to show me true love, and I wouldn’t get any work done. Perfect. Now you’ve got a story.
The truth is, writers typically spend so much time writing stories with other people in mind that they forget how relatable their experiences, emotions, and motivations are. Let everything you love and hate about yourself shine through in your characters. There will be many who see themselves reflected in your characters too.
2. Look around. There are almost eight billion people in the world, and each one of those people is a little bit different from the next. As a writer, it is your job to connect those people to your story by helping them see themselves in your characters. With a little observation of the world around you, you have an unlimited supply of source material. For example, are you writing a coming-of-age novel about a teen who is struggling their way through high school? Think of the worst teacher you have ever had–the one who examined your every move for a hint of rulebreaking–and put your main character face–to–face with an exaggerated version of that teacher.
Are you writing a romance novel? Think of your most annoying in love acquaintances. You know those people. The ones who seem like newlyweds for the rest of their lives, calling each other pet names so much they forget their real names. Insert a version of them into your story about a cynical coffee addict trying to find love and voila, you have supporting characters who will force your main character to reveal a bit more about themselves.
You do not have to stop at people you know or have met either. Sit in the park one day and watch the pedestrians go by. Maybe you will see a mom juggling three kids, saving them from disaster one step at a time as if she has eight eyes and four arms. Let your imagination run with it. Is she actually a super hero in disguise? Does she train Crossfit to maintain such a delicate balance? Or maybe you see a well dressed business person–thousand dollar suit, rollex watch, alligator leather shoes–strolling through the park picking up loose trash. Are they a lone crusader trying to save the planet? Has the stress from their job driven them to madness, and they are looking for their lost wit in the trash littered about the park? Did they drop the trash themselves and come back out of guilt? Fill in the blanks and all of a sudden you can draw a character from people you saw once for less than 60 seconds.
The benefit of drawing characters from strangers is that your readers have seen the same people walking around, and they have wondered why those people do what they do. Tell their story and you just might find your readers know exactly who you are talking about.
3. Brush up on your history. Have you ever heard the saying, “those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it?” It may or may not be true, but in some ways, people do not change all that much. Pick up a history book and you will find a litany of morally questionable, odd, powerful, and confusing characters that your readers will be intrigued by. For example, in 2012 a movie was released that took this idea to an extreme. The writers asked the question, “What would happen if Abraham Lincoln were actually a vampire hunter?” Sure, this may be a question that no one else was asking, but you do not have to take a historical figure and transpose them into your narrative to draw inspiration from real people from the past. Are you looking to create an antagonist who is a relentless, ruthless, unstoppable force of personal ambition in your main character’s law firm? History is full of conquerors, political geniuses, and charismatic leaders for you to draw from.
Pull a few character traits from these figures, and you will have no problem filling in the rest of the character with unique additions. This is the most difficult method of the three to successfully use because you do not want your main character going up against Alexander Hamilton in the courtroom. It can be easy to copy historical figures verbatim (on purpose or by accident), but it will feel inauthentic either way. Your readers will also pick up on it quickly.
However, if you have ever been inspired by, terrified by, or simply interested in a figure from history, do not be afraid to use the characteristics that made you feel that way. You might find that your character may be just as inspiring, terrifying, or charismatic for your reader.
With these three methods of discovering characters in your toolbox, you should be well on your way to developing a cast of colorful, intriguing, and ultimately relatable characters. One thing to remember as you are attempting to write a story is that your audience will only get to judge your final draft. You are free to have fun thinking through how people with certain characteristics would respond to certain situations. Develop your characters through trial and error until you have landed on the perfect combination for your story. Most importantly, keep writing. Only you can tell your story.