1: Make sure you treat your characters as if they are “real” actors playing a part in your production. Treat them like valuable artists and they will become your most precious assets. What does this mean? It means that the person on the page ought to be seen (by you) as “real”. The participants in your novel have their own basic emotions, needs, wants, and requirements. But you, as the author / director of the narrative, will want these troupers to “appear” in the production and to act a part. So be kind to them. Negotiate with them, reward them, reassure them, and flatter them. I like to imagine that they are waiting outside in a dressing room and preparing their lines. You will walk in and announce that you are looking for a hero, or a champion, or maybe a rogue or even a minor role, for example a bartender or a school secretary, and everyone who enrolls will advance forward to shout “Choose me! Choose Me!” They all want to be in your production. They are keen to help…
Think of it this way, if I offered you or your best friend a minor role in a big-budget movie, you (they) would take it seriously, right? Wouldn’t you want to give your role some personality, oomph, pizzazz, persona or other uniqueness? Yes, of course you would. So, treat your actors (background roles, or otherwise) as performance players on your movie set.
If you follow this advice, the characters will not be “cardboard cutouts” of proper people. They will absolutely be proper people!
2: Give all your people a set of positive and negative traits. I mean, everyone. If you fill your actors with what I call “Kinetic Potential” they won’t let you down. They will entertain and reward you. But this means that you will have to make them “wholly rounded” individuals, and this will require them to take-on some negative as well as positive traits (and vice versa for antagonists). So find two or three “negatives” for your protagonist; for example, a Harry Potter type character is also impulsive, obsessive, reckless (choose your own, these are just my suggestions!)
And you don’t have to make your antagonist admirable or likable… but why not make Him, Her or It more convincing by creating a genuinely three-dimensional anti-hero that betrays positive (yes, positive) traits? For example, Lord Voldemort is a charismatic leader, Darth Vader is a skilled space-pilot, and Dracula is an attentive and passionate lover.
I use the Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, and I hope you will too. It helps because it provides the visual clues, the non-verbal “ticks” — if you like — so it means you will tend to “show” rather than tell (which is a good thing!)
3: Give your characters identifiable obstacles. We don’t all have a physical disadvantage or a history of abuse, right? We are not all orphans. So it’s hard to precisely relate to these burdens, isn’t it? But we have all lost something that we treasured. We have all found ourselves on the wrong side of events or arguments. We have all done poorly in an important test. We have all felt bad because we could not achieve what we wanted. We have all missed-out on a treat or a reward. We have all been scared of not living up to someone else’s standards. We have all been disappointed. So give your characters obstacles that will be understandable to all readers. So they might feel empathy.
If you follow this advice, your audience will identify with your characters; and all their strengths, weaknesses, and struggles will be realistic
4: What’s in Area 51? Don’t you just love a mystery. What is yours? I emphasise this: your story does not have to be a detective novel or a thriller to have an enigma hidden inside it. All stories can be vastly improved with a fascinating secret. Have you conceived one yet? I hope you did, because even if it’s a “side show” to the key events, it will continue to drive your narrative. Think of your mystery element as a new ship: it has to be designed, tested, and it has to be launched (preferably fairly early on.) You have to talk about it. It should be seen from a distance. And then it must be lost. Although perhaps it may appear in view (from a distance) at various times. But we don’t get on board. Nobody gets on board. Not until the time is right. And that’s right at the end! In the big reveal!
5: Make your players mysterious by giving them facets of character. This will mean that your actors will not be inexplicable mystagogues or (worse) carbon copy tropes. We know that traits reveal a character’s underlying values or beliefs, but to make your people absolutely compelling, we need to take their negative & positives (see tip No.2 above) and dig into them, to root out the facets.
What do I mean? Well, let’s say your hero is friendly. Doesn’t that also mean that we can easily manipulate them? Abusive people will “burden” a friendly soul with problems or cause friendly folk to do things that they would rather not. By being friendly (all the time), will your friendly player follow their own wishes or dreams? Or will they just be doing things for others? Think about it.
And say you have decided that your antagonist is impatient — doesn’t this mean they will busy themselves on projects, get things done, work to strict deadlines, be remarkably well organised, and generally well-prepared? These are the “facets” — or, if you like, the counterparts of good / bad attributes. If you work on the facets of character (the contradictions found inside the traits), your create characters that will become ever-more mysterious but, at the same time, magically, more relatable too!
Please let me know how you get on. Tweet me @neilmach
Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.