What makes great characters great? Is it that they’re heroic, or clever, or villainous or quirky? I don’t think it’s any of these things. Great characters are great because they’re real. The reader’s imagination is a sophisticated thing – and it doesn’t matter if they’re adults or children. When they first encounter a character, they’re reserving judgement. They’re waiting to see is this character believable? Do they make sense in the world that the author has created for them? The more believable they are, the more the reader is willing to accompany them on the journey they’re about to embark upon – and this goes for villains and heroes.
1. Make them distinctive I
In adult fiction, you often don’t need to see the character. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 52 Perry Mason books, but never once described his hero’s physical appearance. You can’t get away with that in children’s books. Your characters need to be seen.
When we see him first, Virgil Salinas from Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly is ‘the smallest, most forgettable and always last picked’. He walked through the front door ‘like a defeated athlete’. Morrigan Crow of Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend has ‘the midnight black hair and pale, sickly complexions of the Crow family. Crows never tanned.’
On a side note – see how masterfully these appearances are revealed? There’s no plodding ‘Morrigan was 11 years old and dressed in black all the time’. And no one is plonked in front of a mirror so that they can describe who looks back at them.
You don’t have to open the props drawer and give them a wooden leg and a pet pot-bellied pig, a set of idiosyncratic exclamations (Wowsers! Scroodles!) and dress them only in calico dungarees. Unless yours is a world of extreme absurdity (like the wonderful Mr. Gum books), this kind of thing is only going to bewilder your reader. Go easy on the quirks. Just let us see them.
2. Make them distinctive II
I’m not talking about their appearance now. I mean their character. What are they like? Hot-headed? Thoughtful? Angry? Terrified of horses? Loyal to their friends? What are the things that make them tick, that terrify them, that make them laugh, that make them feel like throwing up?
I’ve always found character questionnaires a really helpful way of getting to know the characters I’ve created. You draw up a series of questions, anything up to a hundred: What was the best birthday party they were ever at? Did they ever ride a horse? What was their last nightmare about? Have they ever been involved in a car crash? Write these questions WITHOUT thinking about your characters. Then go answer them for each one – or at least each of your main characters. It’s a wonderful way of fleshing them out, so that when they are released into the world of your story, they will always act consistently.
3. Plot flexibly
And while we’re on the subject of releasing your living, breathing characters into the world of the story, here’s another key point. Those of us that work with treatments and outlines and other aids to plotting the story, remember this: Character trumps plot. If your plot requires your character to sky dive from the top of the Eiffel Tower, but that character would never do that in a million years, you’ve got to find another way. There are exceptions however. If your character is taking action to face her fears, she may well do something uncharacteristic, but that has to be a significant moment in your story, as opposed to a convenient device to propel the action along. Outlines are great, but if you handcuff a great character to a plot, they’ll stop being a great character very quickly.
4. Compare and Contrast
Stories happen when characters come together. If those characters think and feel and act the same, the story will wither and die. If you’re writing an ensemble piece, where you have a group of characters who are all on the same side, there’s still plenty of scope for giving them different sets of characteristics. One may be the thoughtful strategist, the other may wish to plunge into the adventure, another maybe fearful but determined, another may be extremely reluctant to do anything.
5. Let ‘em grow
If you’ve done your job right, something significant has taken place in your story, so if your characters are really real, the things you’ve put them through should have some impact on them. Maybe the hero has found the courage to change something, maybe the villain is redeemed, maybe friendships are formed or sundered. I should say you don’t have to do this. In action hero series (anything from Beast Quest to James Bond) there’s not much character development, and that’s fine. But nothing makes a story linger in the heart like transformation.
How do you know it’s worked?
How do you know you’ve created a great set of characters? You’ll discover it in the dialogue. If this flows along crisply, if you can feel them speaking to and sparking off each other, you’re probably on the right track.
Give your minor characters a moment. My hero’s sidekick, Poly Mole, is phobic about leaving the house. But when the hero is in trouble, and she’s the only one who can help, she confronts that fear and goes to his aid. In that moment, she steps into the limelight and proves herself both courageous, and worthy of notice. Dozens of people have surprised me by saying that Polly is their favourite character.