I need a character for a story. Lets call him Fred. Fred is 5’11”, weighs 185 lbs and has blond hair and blue eyes. Do you love him yet? What if I tell you he has a six pack? No? Neither do I really. I mean who names their character Fred, you’d always be waiting for him to yell “Wilmaaaa”. (Sorry, old guy joke,)
Lets make Fred a vampire, nope, that’s been done, maybe a… nope. Let’s see, what kind of story I am putting him in? Let’s go for a good slasher horror story. So Fred’s a mechanic. He’ll be able to whip up any kind of machine to slaughter bad guys by the dozens.
So Fred, the mechanic goes out to slaughter bad guys. He meets Wilma, neither of them have seen the Flintstones, so it’s OK. What isn’t OK is that they have nothing to talk about. She’s a hairdresser and he’s a mechanic. He does have nice hair, but there only so many times a girl can run her hand through even the best head of hair.
So I’m going to give Wilma a secret passion for muscle cars. Now she can talk shop with Fred and they’ll be deliriously happy. My readers, not so much. Maybe Fred needs a hobby. He knits sweaters. His grandmother taught him. But he’s embarrassed about it. What bad guy slaying mechanic wants to admit that he knits. Only they get chased into a wool shop by the bad guys. Fred needs a disguise in a hurry. What better disguise than a toque? (It’s a Canadian winter hat.) Wilma is delighted and impressed. She’s even more impressed when he stabs a bad guy in the eye with the knitting needle.
All this killing is working up an appetite. So Wilma whips up a steak that would make you weep, only Fred’s a vegetarian. Big problem …
Now Fred is starting to become interesting. He’s developed layers. So has Wilma. In fact it would be a good thing to give everyone a layer or two. Characters with depth are much more likely to make for a strong story. If you start hitting the doldrums, you can fall back on your characters minor traits for a plot device. Create some conflict between the kind of things that we take for granted, but only the best writers put into their books.
Next time you are looking at your characters, think about what they do in their spare time. How can you use that to create more interest in your story? People will follow characters they are attached to even when the plot feels thin. Yet even the best plot in the world won’t save you if your characters are cardboard cutouts.
I’ve seen much discussion about how much to describe those characters we’ve just given birth to. Some authors want to describe everything about the character down to what colour toe nail polish they’re wearing. Others hardly describe the character at all. When you read books, watch for how the characters are introduced. Does the story stop while the reader is given what I fondly refer to as the missing person’s description? Maybe all right if things aren’t moving quickly, but if you’re in a fight scene, you don’t want to stop for nail polish.
Personally I’m a bit on the sparse side. I get readers asking for more, so I came up with a standard to describe a character. I give two traits and a quirk. So they may be fat, smelly and talk like they’re breathing helium. Maybe they have red hair, they’re short, and have a vicious sarcasm addiction. You can always build on it later as the characters interact.
A lot of places offer detailed character creation checklists. You, the author need to know all that information, but the reader doesn’t, not all at once. Build your characters up in layers, give them quirks, flaws, and the rest. Your reader will love you for it.