Compelling characters don’t just surprise readers – they surprise their authors as well.
A friend of mine, who had just published a relatively successful first novel, is working on his second novel. I asked him how it felt to be writing a new one.
“Honestly, it’s kind of scary,” he said. “These characters are strangers to me. I planned them out. I have the traits and the story down, but I won’t really know them until a couple of drafts in.”
Most writers and readers know that a good piece of fiction starts with memorable characters. The story can be amazing, the writing can pop right off the page, the research can be meticulous, but if the characters fall flat, so will the story. When I worked at a literary agency, the No. 1 reason an editor would accept a novel was because they loved the characters. And the No. 1 reason a book got rejected was that the editor didn’t like, could not relate to, or didn’t believe in the characters.
Compelling characters come from many places. One of the best ways to transform a protagonist from a cardboard cutout to a dynamic person is to make them complicated. Characters should have flaws. They should have something that they are struggling with and something they are struggling to attain. They should be down to earth in some ways and larger-than-life in others. Complex characters also often surprise us with how they show emotions. Someone who shows weakness through predictable tears in a first draft might demonstrate it by violently attacking their pillow in the final book.
It’s important to remember that the best way to know our characters is to stick with them through many drafts. Characters change as a work progresses. They evolve from the first spark of who we think they are to someone more complicated – and therefore more interesting – as we write draft one, draft two, draft three, draft fifty.
One of the most intriguing things about compelling characters (usually the protagonist, but other characters as well) is that they change. We all know characters should change for our readers, but a dynamic character might also change for the writer as we get to know them better.
In the end, getting to know your new character is a lot like getting to know a new friend: It takes time to go from casually hanging out after work to sharing your most intimate secrets in real life, and the same is true of the fictional people we put on the page. We need to get to know them, draft them a couple of times, for all their nuances to truly come out.
The more I get to know the people in my novels, the more they surprise me. I used to be afraid of that. Now, I relish it. There’s nothing better than when a character shocks me. It reminds me that a piece of writing is a living, breathing creation, and we authors are at our best when we allow our art its own agency.
The first step toward creating believable characters is to understand it’s OK for unplanned aspects of your character (or characters) to emerge. In fact, it’s not only OK, it’s awesome. I find my most compelling characters are the ones who do a complete 180 – not on the reader but on myself as the author. Don’t fight your characters if you find them shifting. Yes, this sometimes means the drafting process will be a bit more involved, requiring the author to go back and do major edits, but if it’s good for the story, it’s worth doing.
There are a few ways I’ve found that characters emerge as we draft our work:
1. Your characters just tell you who they are.
While writing my first novel, I drafted the character of my protagonist’s older brother. He was, in my mind, a stereotypical mean bully of an older brother. He’d already often yelled at my child protagonist and hit him upside the head a few times. He had issues of his own, but they didn’t fully excuse his behavior. Then one day, as I was drafting a scene, he showed me another side of him, a side I hadn’t planned to see. In fact, I had planned out the very scene in great detail before I started writing. I had decided that after the protagonist’s father had gotten particularly abusive with him, he’d go into his backyard and cry. His older brother would then come over to him and yell at him to stop being a baby.
That was the scene I planned. That was what I wanted to write. But he didn’t do what I wanted him to do.
As I was writing the scene, I realized there was another aspect to this character, and instead of acting like a bully older brother, this character got to his knees in front of his abused little brother and started crying himself. He begged his brother’s forgiveness and vowed to help better protect him from their abusive father. I didn’t see that coming until I was writing the scene, but as I was writing I saw a more human side to this boy.
Even after that realization, that character still had some bully tendencies in him. It didn’t change him completely. He had a temper. He sometimes yelled at his little brother. But once I saw that other side of him, I realized I could do so much more with the character I’d already created. This character became complicated. Not just a bully, but a bullied child. This was much more compelling than a stereotypical bully.