How to Create Engaging Characters
by Jenn Scott
What are people interested in more than just about anything else? Other people! The human mind is a storytelling mind made to weave various pieces of information together into a complete picture that helps us understand the motivations of the “characters” in our lives. Examples of this are everywhere. Consider the propensity of people to gossip, to eavesdrop, to people-watch, to peek into medicine cabinets during dinner parties, to attend open houses even when not in the market to buy, and to scrutinize Facebook photos of people we barely knew in high school. Why do we do all these things?
As psychologist and author of the 2013 book, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, Thomas Suddendorf writes, “Our urge to link our minds permeates much of what we do. We spend a lot of our social lives exchanging gossip, opinions, and advice. We listen to stories, read books, or watch shows that let us see the world from someone else’s perspective.” (p. 116)
As humans, we are driven to seek an understanding of others and have an endless appetite for new characters. We want to know the whole story, not just what is presented to us on the surface. We want to know what makes the other person tick, who they love, who they hate, whether they splurge on Aveeda shampoo or use a drug store brand, what health or personal hygiene concerns they have, the ways in which they always succeed or always screw up. We love to tell and hear stories which confirm just how well we understand a person’s character. “That is just so Jenn, to buy all her music at Starbucks!” “Classic Ralph – he ‘forgets’ his wallet and makes everyone else pay for dinner.”
Not only do we discuss people we know, but we also dissect the motivations of people who are not even real—the characters we read about in books and watch on TV and in movies. People fall in love with these fictional characters and will often follow them even when the overall plot of the story may be lacking. A classic example of this is when long-running sitcoms run out of plot ideas and, in desperation, put the characters in ridiculous situations (e.g. “jumping the shark”). Despite the implausibility or insipidity of the plot line, many viewers and readers will remain loyal to a character that they have come to love (or love to hate) over time. Of course, the other side of the coin is that if a new character is not interesting, the reader will be tempted to put the book aside. The writer’s job is to create engaging characters who make the reader want to keep reading all the way through the book and beyond. This sounds like a challenging task, and it is. But there are many things that a writer can do to create engaging characters.
Readers don’t necessarily have to like a character in order to keep reading, but they do need to be interested in the character. Characters who are interesting feel “real.” Remember the examples above? Real characters like some people and dislike others. They are good at some things and bad at others. They have faults. They may have physical traits, behaviors and manners of speaking that make them unique—just like those people we like to watch on the bus. They are not one-dimensional. One of the best ways that an author can get to know his or her characters better is to flesh them out through writing exercises. For example, the writer might do some timed writing in response to “start lines.” This is a technique I learned in the UW Screenwriting program from teachers Stewart Stern and Geoff Miller, and it is very helpful. Give yourself about 10 minutes per start line and just start writing the first things that come to mind.
• When you first meet this character, right away you’ll notice…
• The most important thing (or person) in this character’s life is…
• The character’s goal is…
• The primary emotion that drives my character is…
• My character’s flaw/wound/secret is….
Once you really know your character, you can use that knowledge to intensify the conflict in your story. How do this character’s interests intersect with those of other characters? Where might conflict arise? What situations might make it more difficult for her to accomplish her goal and thus contribute to her growth and change? When you look at it this way, a thorough understanding of the characters is key to the very fabric of the story. Luckily, you are a natural storyteller and there are lots of real people to observe for ideas!
Jenn Scott is a developmental editor with a passion for partnering with authors to help them tell their stories in the most impactful ways possible. Her strengths as an editor stem from a deep understanding of story structure, character development and analytical thinking. She holds a certificate in screenwriting from the University of Washington as well as a BA from Dartmouth College and a Masters degree from the University of Washington. When not working, Jenn enjoys reading, yoga, and spending time with her husband and ten-year old son. One of her favorite annual activities is writing, producing and acting in a children’s play with her family at the Oregon Country Fair. She can be reached at email@example.com.