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Ever wonder how Scarlett O’Hara became so beloved? How about Harry Potter? Creating a believable and likable main character is one of the greatest challenges a writer faces. But what exactly is it that makes these unforgettable characters stand out?
We’re taking on the big question a lot of authors ask: How can I create a great character whom readers will remember? We’ll look the primary character types, what qualities make a character stand out, and how you can turn a cardboard cut-out into a complex, authentic character.
Meet Your Protagonist
The protagonist is your main character—your hero or heroine. This character is the heart and soul of your story, and aside from being the most important person (or animal or robot) in your book, the protagonist needs to be someone your reader can become emotionally invested in.
Tips for making a great protagonist:
- Give them a backstory. Even if all of this information never makes it on to the page, create a life history for them. Who are their parents? What were they like as a child? Discover what makes your protagonist who they are and how that influences how they will behave.
- Create a strong character arc for them. Your protagonist should grow and evolve over the course of your story. It’s up to you to decide how their actions and choices shape that arc.
- Give them flaws and quirks. Perfect people are not only boring, they’re hard to identify with. In real life, people are memorable because of our habits and eccentricities, and how those shape our lives—your fictional characters deserve the same depth.
- Allow your protagonist to make mistakes and even fail. Human beings always learn best from their mistakes, and your characters should too.
Now Create an Antagonist
In their most basic form, an antagonist is the villain of your book. This is the person who is out to ruin your protagonist, make their life harder, bully them, or even try to kill them. But the greatest antagonists in fiction are more than mere evil-doers. They’re the catalyst that turns a protagonist into a hero or heroine; they create the conflict that drives the book’s narrative. Fleshing out your antagonist makes them more believable, more terrifying, and much more interesting. After all, would Dracula have been so fascinating and yet terrible if he hadn’t been motivated by love?
Tips for making a great antagonist:
- They need a backstory too. Like you protagonist, your villain needs their own life history that shaped who they have become. What happened in their life to make them so awful—and is that trauma masking a person who could be redeemed?
- Create a strong character arc that either opposes or mirrors your protagonist’s. Your antagonist needs their own set of motivations and desires that will not only shape the events of the book but also shape who the protagonist becomes.
- Make them human. The most compelling villains in fiction—and even in real life—aren’t 100 percent evil. The more human (or relatable) you make your villain, the greater the stakes, and the more conflict the reader will experience.
And Finally, You Need Secondary Characters
Secondary characters can be critical to a book. While they may not necessarily be as in-depth as the protagonist or the antagonist, they can be just as memorable and beloved as the hero or heroine. After all, where would Sherlock Holmes be without his Dr. Watson? Or Harry Potter without Hermione Granger?
Secondary characters usually serve a specific purpose, such as:
- Creating comical or critical mistakes to further the plot
- Assisting or hindering the protagonist or even the antagonist
- Providing necessary skills or aid
- Creating a motivation (such as love) or emotional support
- Acting as a conscience (or mischief maker) for the protagonist
Now we know the characters we need. But how can we make them real?
In order to create a truly believable character, you want them to be fully imagined and three-dimensional—capable of walking off the page and into the real world. But how can we do that? Here are a few of our favorite tips.
- Give your characters the ability to choose—and make those choices hard. Our choices make us who we are as human beings. They shape us. And the harder the choice, the greater the impact. Not only does choice allow you to establish who a character is, but it creates tension and conflict, which makes this one of the most important things to give your characters.
- Draw upon your own experiences and background to color in your characters’ personalities. The old adage “write what you know” absolutely applies here. After all, most of us meet and talk to people every day, and they are treasure troves of quirks, habits, and idiosyncrasies that can provide inspiration. You are too!
- Give them a desire. What does this character want more than anything, and why? And how far would they go to get it? A simple but powerful motivation can not only drive the plot of an entire book, it can even extend over an entire series.
- Do they have a secret? Almost everyone has a secret—whether it’s their own or one they’re keeping for someone else. Some secrets are big, and some of them are small. But the drive to protect that secret, or to uncover the truth, inspires a lot of action. And in most cases, the secrets people keep are an excellent way of determining their moral code. And if you want to reveal a character’s secret, deciding on how and when to do it can create delicious possibilities.
- Reveal their inner turmoil. Whenever your protagonist is in a difficult situation, make sure your readers know what’s happening in their heads. Not only will this establish their conflict but it will also increase the reader’s empathy for the character. Just be careful you don’t overdo it and spend too much time in inner monologue at the sacrifice of action.
- Don’t go overboard with details. In much the same way authors of historical fiction can include too much detail from their research and overwhelm readers, including every facet of your character’s backstory can actually backfire. Only include what’s essential to move the plot forward.
- Let them feel fear and vulnerability. Nothing reveals a person’s true self more than seeing who they are when they are terrified. What does your character fear, and why? And how does that fear drive their actions?
- Don’t be afraid to create characters readers don’t like. In fact, presenting readers with a character we’re disposed to hate and then making them relatable, and even funny or charming, will deepen their investment and make the story more interesting. (For example, Crowley in Good Omens is a demon and yet an entertaining character that readers take a liking to.)
Try creating a Dungeons & Dragons–style character sheet for each member of your book’s cast. Role-playing games are all about character development, and their character sheets allow players to fully flesh out their characters, including abilities, appearance, skills and weaknesses, tools, background, and even in some cases their flaws. This can help keep your character traits organized and be a useful reference for you when deciding how your characters might react in any given scenario.