When it comes to the characters of your book, no one is going to know them like you do. Bringing these imaginary people to life and making them feel real is a tricky art. One that you can master with practice, learned skills, and remembering some of these dos and don’ts.
Do Work With And Against The Stereotypes
Stereotypes can work in your favor. For example, if you start describing a character as a small town girl headed to the big city to make it as an actress, the reader can already picture the pretty, naive blond who is nice to everyone and has her heart broken because she’s just so darn trusting. It’s well-known stereotypes like that which will help to form the character in the readers’ mind for you. You can use that to your advantage, or you can go against the stereotype and flip it on its head. After all, no one suspected that the naive blond was the murderer because they trusted her so much.
Do Skip The Majority Of Physical Characteristics
Have you ever watched a movie where the characters all look so alike that you get confused about who is who? The same can be said for book characters if you stick to the rule of giving every single character a physical description. Yes, you want the reader to have an idea of what a character looks like, especially the protagonist, but if you’re describing every single character in great detail, not only are you slowing down the pace of the story, but you’ll then find yourself resorting to useless descriptions such as “his irises were the color of ocean water when the mist settles in”, just because you don’t want to say that yet another character has blue eyes. Only describe detailed physical characteristics if it’s relevant to the story. If it’s not, then just give enough information to allow the reader fill in the blanks.
Do Accept That Some Characters Will Just Shine
I have a character in my YA supernatural series who started out as the comic relief and was meant to be a background character who didn’t know about the supernatural secrets of the main three characters. I didn’t dedicate a lot of chapters to this character for this reason, in fact, I think he only has his own POV maybe twice throughout four books. When my beta readers started reading the series, every single one of them wanted to see more from this character. He came to life on the page so effortlessly, that no matter how little he was featured, they just instantly loved him. It even got to the point that one beta reader told me they wouldn’t care if the main character died, as long as nothing happened to this secondary character. I didn’t create this character to be so liked, I didn’t have him in the story for any great purpose, and I didn’t even expand his character more than what I wanted to in relation to the plot, but for some reason, everyone so far who has read the series has singled him out to be one of the best things. That’s not something you can plan, so if you end up with a character that everyone loves, just go with it and accept that some characters will just shine.
Don’t Fight What Your Characters Do
Just as I had no control over my beta readers loving that one secondary character so much, sometimes no matter how much you plan, you can’t fight what your characters do. You may have wanted your main character to be a do-no-wrong hero who is selfless in helping others, and are now wondering how they’ve instead come off the rails so far. No matter how much you plan or how detailed you plot your characters, they are going to change as you write. Don’t fight it. In fact, going with the changes that crop up as you write will be better for your characters. More often than not, those changes will be organic and will naturally shift with the story. It won’t feel as forced as trying to make your character do what you wrote down on an index card before you even started chapter one.
Don’t Info-Dump Your Physical Descriptions
Dropping in the physical description of the main character is always tricky. Obviously, you have an idea of how you want the protagonist to look and you want to get this across to the reader. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply lay it all out there and go straight into describing the MC’s hair, eyes and build as soon as they appear on the page. If it’s written in first person, the character can just start talking about how they look. If it’s third, they could look in a mirror. If this advice is sounding lame—it’s because it is!
Just like backstory, don’t info-dump your main physical descriptions. There are better ways to add in physical descriptions than a lame “I caught sight of my long brown hair in the car window reflection and tucked the straight strands behind my small ears so that my high cheekbones and small but perfectly spaced brown eyes could be seen.” That window they walk past might just catch the flash of brown from their long hair strands as they rush past, late for work. Their high cheekbones might be the envy of different character and talked about in their point of view. There are definitely more creative ways to get the physical description of your characters onto the page, so give them a try.
Don’t Be Afraid To Cut
To really make your characters come to life, they need to have backstory, traits, and events in their past that turn them into who they are today. This is key to creating great characters, but it isn’t necessarily what needs to be in your book if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the plot. Through edits, you will cut a lot of what creates your character. You may think that erasing this essential knowledge won’t allow the reader to completely understand who the character is and why they do certain things, but if you edit right, you will keep in what needs to be kept. You, as the writer, will also know all of that essential backstory, and it will subconsciously bleed into the words that you put on the page, so don’t be afraid to cut the unnecessary.
And there you have it, some of my dos and don’ts. You may or may not agree with all of them, just know that creating characters is one of the best parts of the writing process. Have some fun with it and don’t forget to make your characters varied, flawed—and above all—human.
— K.M. Allan