When I conduct my “Write Better, Write Now!” seminars all across the country, the first thing I do is ask my audience, “What is the one thing every novel needs?” The eager and uninitiated throw out answers like: “a catchy opening,” “an engaging plot,” or “robots,” which are all true enough, but alas, are incorrect.
No, the right answer is “a compelling central character.” This is true if that central character is a slightly overweight, outwardly insecure, but inwardly steely singleton looking for love (Bridget Jones’s Diary), or high-tech, extremely deadly, modern weaponry (anything by Tom Clancy).
With that in mind, here are my top five tips for creating more compelling characters.
Tip No. 1: Make your characters round, not flat.
It’s important that we recognize the complexity of the human psyche when we construct our characters. Rare is the person who is all good, or all bad for that matter. The truth is, we are a mix of many different, and oftentimes contradictory traits that are in constant conflict with each other.
Consider the following two passages, and how seemingly slight changes can add nuance and mystery to a character.
“Sister Jane walked down the alleyway. Her habit scraped the filthy ground as she grasped hands with the tiny street urchins, giving them her blessing. At the end of the block, she knelt down, bowed her head and prayed to God to deliver sustenance to these poor souls.”
“Sister Jane walked down the alleyway. Her habit scraped the filthy ground as she grasped hands with the tiny street urchins, giving them her blessing. At the end of the block, she looked both ways before driving a boot into the ribs of a passing stray puppy.”
Now, honestly, which of these passages makes you want to read on?
Tip No. 2: Give your characters some kind of superpower.
Sure, we remember Holden Caulfield as the classic, coming-of-age antihero of Catcher in the Rye, but would we be as drawn to him if Salinger had neglected to give Holden the ability to kill with his thoughts?
Similarly, without the power of flight, _Lolita_’s Humbert Humbert would be just a pervert with a crush on a fourteen-year-old.
Tip No. 3: Give your characters an interesting or unusual physical characteristic.
Is it a coincidence that we remember characters such as Captain Hook, Quasimodo, or Richard Nixon so well and so fondly? No, it is not. Let me ask you this, do you remember Frankenstein as a tragic, romantic figure, struggling to be understood amidst a cruel and heartless world, or as that big green fellow with bolts in his neck?
Warning! Be wary of taking things too far, lest your characters become cartoonish and your readers begin to laugh at you. For instance, if you are writing a fantasy/sci-fi novel about a race of heroic unicorns who return to Earth in the year 3050 to liberate humanity from the great kitten enslavement, it would be wise to give Ringring, the leader of the unicorns, a jewel-encrusted horn, because who could ever forget a heroic unicorn whose horn “shines like it has rubies, or something ruby-like and shiny in it”?
However, if the unicorn also shoots laser beams from its eyes or breathes fire, you have clearly overstepped.
Tip No. 4: Make your character Hitler.
Or better yet, the cloned offspring of Hitler.
This tip is self-explanatory.
Tip No. 5: The clothes make the man (or woman).
We’ve just established the importance of describing physical characteristics, but it would be unwise to ignore the opportunity for characterization provided by one’s mode of dress. In real life, think how often we evaluate people by what they’re wearing.
Wearing white after Labor Day? Then you are hopelessly gauche. Seen sporting a fur coat? You are a murderer with no regard for animal life. Betraying a penchant for short-sleeve dress shirts? Clearly, you are Andy Sipowitz.
This technique can be especially useful for introducing minor players in the present drama, which are notoriously hard to flesh out quickly. Notice in these following examples how two wildly different supporting characters are quickly introduced through the use of novelty T-shirts.
Example 1: "As I moved toward Lex, I could see writing on his T-shirt. Bending closer, I made out the words, “If you can read this, you must be stepping on my Johnson.”
Example 2: "As I moved toward Lex, I could see writing on his T-shirt. Bending closer, I made out the words, “If you can read this, you are either invading my personal space, or are European.”
Lex number one is likely to shake hands using a joy buzzer and make lewd comments about your wife, while Lex number two appears to be an individual who is sensitive to the beliefs and customs of others.
Of course, both are hopeless cretins; they are, after all, wearing novelty T-shirts.
Follow each of these tips, and you’ll be on the road to success in no time. Good luck and good writing!