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How to create engaging characters

Sherlock Holmes, Amy Dunne, Miss Havisham, to name a few, are all engaging characters that resonate with the reader. But how exactly have the authors written them? 

It’s often been said that people feel closer to engaging characters in fiction than they do to real people. It’s also a common theme that the writers themselves can find it hard to keep their characters out of their thoughts on a daily basis.

“[Writing] is somewhere I feel I belong, possibly more than in the so-called real world.”

Tanith Lee

This is because these larger than life characters awaken our imaginations and make us care. Part of what makes an engaging character is put into the time spent planning everything about them.

Engaging characters: map it out

We all know you shouldn’t dump a load of factual information about a character into the description. We shouldn’t even really tell the reader much about their appearance. This all takes place at the planning stage.

Make use of Hemingway’s iceberg theory and work out what should be above the surface (what you show the reader) and what is below (what you don’t show: backstory, further details).

List all the things you know about your character but might not necessarily come up in the story. Physical appearance, character ticks, worst fear, chocolate or cheese, etc. This builds strong foundations and creates a believable character that comes alive on the page. And don’t worry about communicating it all to the reader, all the work you’ve done will naturally come through in your writing.

Example: JK Rowling built a whole world with every detail worked out. Not everything is explicitly stated in the book, but it was planned. She’s revealed some of the extra storylines about the Harry Potter books here.

 Backstory

Another way to help write an authentic character is to suggest their history. The people in your novel will appear flat and like caricatures without a backstory. Include in your character mind map a timeline of events running up to the point at which your character enters the story.

Add subtle references to the past and it will help you forge engaging characters that readers will love.

Example: In Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane you are immediately intrigued as to why the protagonist has absent-mindedly driven back to a place he says he often ends up at. What has happened there? Why does he keep going back?

“I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up until I’ve finished.”

– James Patterson

 Conflict

An essential way to keep your reader engaged in what’s happening is to build conflict into every scene. This can be an internal conflict, external conflict, or both, and is a great tool to communicate tension.

Perhaps your character suffers from claustrophobia but has to get in a lift to try and convince his boss to keep him in the company? Or maybe your protagonist is lying to someone on the phone because of who is standing right in front of them?

Contradiction is something that can really lift your writing. If you can’t wait to get to a particular scene and aren’t that excited about the subsequent one, why not experiment by putting some minor conflict in the scene to heighten the tension for the reader?

Example: Gillian Flynn’s portrayal of Nick Dunne in  Gone Girl. Nick’s character has to deal with the conflict of having to portray to the media a genuine love and concern over his missing wife, whilst at the same time hating her and being somewhat grateful she’s gone.

 Dialogue

Dialogue is something that can strike fear into the heart of any writer. When it’s done well, it shouldn’t even register that it IS speech.

“Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”

– PG Wodehouse

Although it’s hard to write flowing authentic dialogue, it’s needed to break up action, speed it up, and communicate certain things about your characters.

For example you can convey a dislike between two people really concisely just by how they communicate with each other. Or perhaps one person speaks a whole paragraph of dialogue to only get a one word reply from the other person. What kind of drama does that cause? What does that tell you about the two characters?

Example: the opening of of One Day by David Nicholls…

“I suppose the important thing is to make some kind of difference,” she said. “You know, actually change something.”

“What, like “change the world”, you mean?”

“Not the entire world. Just the little bit around you.”

They lay in silence for a moment, bodies curled around each other in the single bed, then both began to laugh in low, pre-dawn voices. “Can’t believe I just said that,” she groaned. “Sounds a bit corny, doesn’t it?”

“A bit corny.”

This represents their close and humorous relationship, which contrasts to the later arguments and disconnection they have. Dialogue is one of the few ways you can tell the reader something about your character with such immediacy.

Some more useful tips on how to write dialogue can be found here. 

 In conclusion

You have to put a lot of research and planning into writing engaging characters. Their fears, aims and flaws are what make them real to us. How dull would the Bridget Jones books be if she was organised, smooth and fine with being alone? Or, can you imagine a “huggy” Sherlock Holmes? Nah.

It should feel instinctual when you know a character is ready to enter your narrative. They will spill onto the page complete with their ambitions, darkest secret, favourite childhood memory and preference for radio over television… although not all of it will be worded.

Share your tips for portraying engaging characters in the comments below.

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