A Fiction Writer Shows You How to Develop Memorable Characters
Start with the basics
Want to develop a character everyone remembers?
- Give them an unforgettable name. There are many online name choosers. Scrivener has one of the better ones built into its editing platform. Whichever method you choose, pick a name that stands out. Don't forget first, middle, last, and nicknames.
- Ethnicity is a major issue, so embrace it. First-person narration appears in every novel. There is no avoiding this fact. Even if you are adept at writing fiction, by the time dialogue appears, so does the first-person narration. When that occurs, what will the reader's voice sound like inside their head? Your readers must reconcile everything about your character into how that character's voice sounds when they read the dialogue. A Scotsman should sound Scottish. A Nigerian should sound Nigerian. A Texan should sound Texan. If you've developed your character, this won't be a problem.
- Character development is more than physical description. The hero was tall and strong. The scientist wore eyeglasses. The model was blonde and skinny. These are all stereotypes that do very little to tell us about the character. Readers won't connect with these characters. The girl was a hero because she refused to give up, even after the monster had taken all she had ever loved. The scientist adorned his last pair of eyeglasses with the hope they were strong enough to allow him to read a little longer. The model wasn't naturally blonde. She had starved herself skinny with the admonition that men loved skinny, blonde chicks. In truth, she bleached her every other night. Do you see the difference?
Start with these 6 traits!
"If you expect me to read your novel, I must know who I'm getting in bed with. Don't shove some shallow character named Bob in front of me and expect me to be okay with that. Where was Bob born? What does he do for a living? Why does he walk with a limp? And that scar...where did he get that horrible scar that runs from the center of his forehead across his left eye to the tip of his chin? Tell me these things and I'm hooked." J. A. Lowe
Back Stories Defined
People in general love a good backstory. When you develop a character for a story, keep the character file separate from the story itself. You will find that over time, you can reuse well-thought-out characters. Sure, you might have to change their names unless you are writing a series. Likewise, when developing backstories, keep them separate too. A good backstory should be interchangeable, just like a good character should be interchangeable. But what is a good backstory?
Defining a Good Backstory
Just like in real life, characters should come from somewhere. They should have a birthplace, a place where they grew up and went to school. It doesn't hurt to have all the particulars their human counterparts would have either. Childhood romances, part-time jobs, college, work experiences, military service, marriage, etc. These things are what happens to real people and if your character is supposed to be a real person, it doesn't hurt to have thought these things out in advance.
Granted, you may not necessarily include everything about them in a story, but it does help to have given some forethought to these things before you go putting your character into a situation their backstory won't support or conflicts with. If your niche is spy novels, I promise you the intelligence agencies don't pick random people off the street and coronate them with the magical "you are now a spy" wand.
Instead, they recruit from those within a population that makes the most sense. Whether it be their education, work experience, or skillsets they learned while serving in the military services, your spies will come from those walks of life instead of the neighborhood bar where a teenager is a barback one day and a super-spy the next. Make your backstory fit and support each character that requires one.
Backstory Length & Depth
Depending on what you're writing, your backstory can be a quick summary that covers the highlights or it can be very detailed and worthy of a chapter or two on its own. When it comes to backstories, it's better to have too much information and not need it, than to not have enough and wonder if your character is diving into uncharted territory. As I mentioned above, I sometimes will mix and match the characteristics of my characters depending on what I'm writing. In one story, I may use a backstory I wrote for a specific character, but in the next story, I may borrow that backstory, make some subtle changes, and use it for another character. Thus, the more information you have gathered about a character, the less work you have to do.
If you've been following along, you now understand the importance of creating backstories. If not, maybe my naming conventions will help connect the dots for you. Whenever I create a new backstory, I will name that backstory according to its profession. Thus, I have backstories for doctors, nurses, police officers, Texas Rangers, Students, Housewives, and so on and so forth. Doing so allows me to quickly choose a backstory for a character without affecting the other facets of the character like their looks, speech, objectives or personality. Good luck and good writing!
Take the time to get into character when writing a story, especially if you write with a first-person point of view. It applies to the other points of view types too, but the first-person is the most common. Would your character behave a certain way? Would they use the language the way you write? You won't know until you've defined their backstory. Characters shouldn't just appear in a story. Your readers are looking for a relationship. Give them one they'll remember!