Interesting, realistic characters are perhaps the most important part of any story, but I believe they’re especially important for speculative fiction such as Science-Fiction and Fantasy. When the world of your story and the events that fill it are beyond belief, you need something to make it real. I often tell my ghostwriting clients that compelling characters are the best way to do that. If your characters feel like real people your readers can relate to, then your story will feel just as real, no matter how fantastic the plot or setting.
But how do you create such characters?
I won’t pretend to be able to fit a complete answer to that question into a single blog post — after all, entire books have been written on the subject — but I do want to give you a piece of the answer today and come back to share more in future posts.
The first piece is: Details.
I could end it there, but that wouldn’t be worth your time, so let’s go on. A major key to creating realistic characters is in fleshing out every detail that makes them who they are. Appearance is important, but I’ve outlined some thoughts previously about how that might not be so important. And, either way, it’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean the details of the character’s background, history, family, culture, personality, habits, pet peeves. All the things that make us (flesh and blood people) real and interesting. Your characters need to have those things too.
Many writers are famous (or infamous) for delving too far into backstory in their books. Character development is a chance to get all that backstory out of your system and keep it out of your manuscript. Write detailed histories for your characters, even the minor ones. You should know everything there is to know about every character who crosses your page. You never have to spell out all those details in the book, of course. Getting caught in that trap is how writers end up dumping so much backstory on their readers that the actual story gets buried and forgotten. However, just by having those details written down somewhere (even if only in your head) your characters will come to life. They’ll do things that may seem unexpected because they have deep seated, hidden motivation from their past; just like a real person.
As a bonus, this will help your story write itself. When you have characters with detailed histories, you don’t have to imagine how they will react to an event because you already know how they’ll react. Their past experiences motivate them to respond in certain ways and all you have to do is write what your characters want to do naturally.
Details are the key, at least one of the keys, to creating engaging, believable characters. In fact, I would say that details are the foundation to realistic characters. You need a lot more to make sure they come to life on the page, but without a solid, detailed history, those other things will fall flat.