What makes a good character? What makes one leap off the page and lodge itself into a reader’s brain? You’d think that after so many thousands of years of humans creating characters, we’d have a handle on the magic formula. We could say, “Oh, to make a compelling character, you need X + Y + Z.” And it’s true that some authors seem to have a knack, a secret for creating characters that stick with us. There must be a formula, right??
But as with most tips and tricks of the storytelling trade, it isn’t so much a formula as it is some loose guidelines or starting points which don’t make any guarantees. Writing is an art as much as it is a craft, and you can follow the steps but that won’t be sufficient to make a story sing.
There are some starting points that we like to try. Some say a character needs to be relatable, that a reader should be able to connect with them. (Maybe they’re in love. Maybe they’re in mourning.) Some suggest giving a character realistic flaws and struggles. (Maybe they can’t work up the nerve to ask that special someone on a date.) Others just toss a bunch of quirks onto a name and hairstyle and call it a day. (They’re obsessed with the Beatles, dye their hair fire engine red, and wear bright yellow socks all the time!) But I don’t recommend the “a bunch of quirks” method, because unless those quirks actually stem from and reveal a more in-depth element, it’s all surface detail with no supporting structure. It’s better as a brainstorming method than an actual character on the page.
One common trick is to plunge deep into a character’s backstory and figure out all the little details that went into shaping them as a person. Even if those details never make it onto the page, that depth will come across unconsciously because you know those details. They will feel deeply defined, because they are.
On the other hand, a loosely-defined background character can be just as fascinating, if their loosely defined characteristics give a reader something to latch onto. Intriguing hooks that are not fully fleshed out or defined, can still lead a curious reader to fill in the blanks themselves. It is the implication of depth, a sounding that implies a deep well. (Maybe this person hasn’t spoken to their brother in years. Why?)
A starting point I am fond of using, especially when I’m stuck, is to find at least one emotional aspect of this character that I can personally relate to, and let that be the starting point for how I understand and write them. Even if their circumstances are wildly different than mine, usually I can find something to connect with. So maybe they’re on the run for a crime they didn’t commit. Well, I’ve never been in that situation, but I know they’d probably be feeling frustrated, and I can get pretty frustrated if things aren’t going well. I know that feeling, that desire to get life back into a semblance of control. So I can focus on that when I write them. And usually that’s enough to clarify them in my head. It’s enough to make them feel like a person to me.
It’s hard to find that tipping point sometimes, to get to that moment where a character suddenly feels real. But it’s always possible. It’s a kind of magic. It’s a synergy that makes something greater than the sum of its parts. Just like real people. Just like all of us.