Providing readers with truly memorable stories requires complex and authentic characters, but to provide the kind of meaningful character traits and motivations that keep readers intent throughout a story and pondering its characters long after they close a book, you need to go much deeper than the standard Character Profile checklist.
The trouble is, deficient characters lead to weak stories. So, it's not enough to figure out where they came from, you need to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Too often, when working with authors, I find missed opportunities in this area, which leaves readers not quite satisfied. The consequences of not delving deeply enough into a characters psyche are:
The key to bringing out the best and worst in our characters, is to make their thoughts and actions relevant to the plot.
Whether you start with plot or character, to create a dynamic story, you need to tie the two together and this means knowing which parts of their personality and backstory you can use against them, and which abilities you can harness to give them a fighting chance.
It’s not enough to fling mud at the wall and see what sticks, you have to know which parts to use and how to leverage them for the benefit of the story.
What makes characters authentic?
There are countless Character Profiles out there to help you list physical traits, mannerisms, demographics, lifestyle and personal preferences. What I’m talking about here are the things that make characters unique, like their:
I always think I know my characters when I start a new story, but by the time I get to the end of the first draft, I've had to make innumerable decisions, which add complexity to them.
For this reason, I recommend using a Character Profile template that goes the extra mile and updating it as you write. Dig deep into your character’s driving forces to unearth what’s special about them and will evoke readers’ sympathies. (Below is a link to a ready-made template that’s loaded with prompts to draw out those complexities.)
What makes characters relevant to the plot?
There is an inextricable link between what needs to happen throughout a story’s plot for the characters to get from the starting point to their destination, and why each character is driven to take specific actions. Characters who act with purpose, i.e. they have solid reasons for their actions, have the power to engage readers in their conflicts, which in turn creates tension and draws them all the way through the book.
In order for characters to behave believably, you need to be able to communicate why they think a certain way or take a particular action. You can’t communicate it if you don’t know it. So, my favourite question to ask every time a character has a thought or takes an action is “Why?”.
This desire will invariably come from their past, even when they are reacting to situations in the present. For example, if five different people were faced with the same situation, they would each handle it in their own way, based on what they believe and want.
For each plot point, it must be clear how the character got there. Not how the author physically put them in that situation, but what life choices they made, what they did and with whom, to plausibly bring them to this moment in time.
Readers connect with characters when they can sympathise with what they’re going through. They may have been through a similar situation or understand the strong emotions linked to it, be cringing at a failure or rooting for a win.
This peek inside their humanity comes from what shaped them as a person, i.e. everything that happened to them before the story started. Just like real people, story characters need to appear to have lived, loved and lost. It’s these backstory events, world views and personal beliefs that add depth to them.
Only share the character traits and backstory events that are relevant to what’s happening in the story at that time, to enable readers to understand what’s going on and feel the emotional turmoil alongside the character.
Instead of forcing characters to perform like circus animals, deep character development provides solid reasons why they are on this journey and will stick with it even when the going gets tough.
When plot requires the character to behave a certain way, there must be a plausible desire within them, based on who they are and what they believe. On the flip side, if a character wants to do something, you must be able to provide sound reasoning for their decision and motivation for them to act.
Taking the time to develop complex characters who are driven by their beliefs, will make for an emotive experience readers can buy into and remember fondly for years to come. But remember, just because you’ve thought about every possible situation, doesn’t mean it’s all relevant to the story. Only use what is needed to support the events happening in the story at that time.
If you’ve been accused of having cardboard cutout characters or unbelievable scenarios, it’s likely you need to explore the inner workings of your character’s mind and make sure their thoughts and actions are relevant to what’s going on in the plot.
Grab a copy of Sandy’s free Character Profile template (it’s so much more!).
About Sandy Vaile
Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and coaches fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share (and which get noticed by agents and publishers).
Sandy is an experienced course presenter who provides a nurturing workshop environment where participants can truly absorb the material and apply it to their own work. In her spare time, she composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers critiquing services.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
Empowering modern fiction writers