One of the main things we as writers do is get our audience to invest in our story through the use of character. While a cover, blurb, concept and reader interest are all necessary concepts to get our readers interested, if said reader cannot connect or invest in our characters, then the story will not work. Conversely, if the characters are interesting or compelling enough, then readers are able to overlook story elements that they might not like.
Think of the last good book you read. Chances are, there was at least one character that you latched on to. This may not have been the Main Character per se - and it’s worth examining why if it wasn’t the lead that caught your attention - but rather the character that you found most compelling. What moves a reader is a whole host of factors including their own personal history and ideas.
However, there is a difference between having a flat vs rounded character, namely that the latter has a much greater chance of connecting with your reader. Not only that, but rounded characters are more likely to gain your reader’s respect, even if they don’t like them.
For example, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley is a fascinating, but thoroughly unlikeable character. Over the course of the book, the reader comes to know him quite well. The case is similar with a Patrick Bateman from American Psycho - another completely despicable character, but one who is nonetheless fascinating to read about.
One of the ways you can make your characters more interesting and most importantly, more than just caricatures, is to give them clear, definable strengths, weaknesses and quirks. Another way to add layers to a character is outline each character’s motivation. Finally, you can gain great insight into your own creations if you chart their journey from the beginning of the book to the end.
Step 1: The 3rd Dimension
Let’s take a look at an example. I’m going to use one of the most famous characters in all of film history - because literally everyone should be familiar with who Luke Skywalker is. If, for some reason, you aren’t - then get out.
At the beginning of Star Wars, Luke is a demonstrably good pilot, a trusting, confident young man who’s adept at fixing old machinery (in this case, our loveable trashcan R2D2). He’s also loyal to his Obi-Wan, brave and willing to risk his life for his friends. He also displays a spunky, can-do attitude and a fearlessness that lets him jump into an X-Wing fighter and join the Rebel Army’s run on Death Star without any real training. He is also the most compassionate of all the characters in the first movie, as he displays real emotion to the death of his family and eventually, Obi-Wan himself.
Luke is almost annoyingly whiny - he complains all the time - has little-to-no street smarts and gets flustered when the situation is out of his control. When he meets Han Solo, the older scruffy nerf herder instantly takes charge and in essence, exposes Luke for the farm boy he is. He is unable to get anyone to really listen to him, can barely hold a lightsaber and needs R2D2 to watch his back while he pilots his X-Wing.
Eventually, his fearlessness turns to recklessness and causes him to lose a hand to Daddy Darth Vader, but that’s a story for another time. See kids? You can totally plant seeds that pay off in future installments if you write a series!
Being fresh off the farm, but possessing of a connection to The Force, Luke is able to tap into this great cosmic power to pull off his one-in-a-million shot into the exhaust vents of the Death Star. His comical fascination with Princess Leia lends him an easy-going charm, as what young man hasn’t been taken aback by a pretty (NOT YOUR SISTER, DUDE!) face? His fresh-faced morality is neither a strength nor a weakness, but it does place him in stark contrast to the harder edged characters, Leia and Solo.
Step 2: Motivation
Actors will often ask “What’s my motivation?” so they can apply that knowledge to the context of the scene they’re in. Your characters should be asking the same question. A sign of poor storytelling is when the next step in the plot unfolds simply because it has to. The best stories have your characters directly (or indirectly) instigating the progression due to the pursuit of their goals.
For this section, let’s take a look at another character in the Star Wars universe - Vader. Why? Simply because it is Vader’s motivation that has the biggest impact on the entire series of films, books and associated apocrypha. Plus, villains can be the ones motivating your plot, and they tend to MUAHAHA their way through explaining their reasons why.
Not that your villains have to do that. Make them as well-rounded as your protagonist and you’ll be ahead of the game.
What Do They Want?
So, what does the big guy want anyway? Other than a hug and maybe a big basket of kittens?
The destruction of the Rebel Alliance of course! He wants the Imperial Empire to rule the galaxy, he wants to serve his Emperor and he wants to use the Death Star to crush anyone who stands in his way.
As far as motivations go, that’s pretty clear. Now - let’s say your villain is not the Face-mask-and-Cape-wearing type, how do you go about spelling out their motivations to your reader?
First off, you have to know what drives your character on a Macro level and what drives them on a Micro level. The Macro level is their overall goal, so from beginning to end, what is it about this character that makes them do what they do? The Micro level is what drives them from scene-to-scene. What’s important to remember that a character’s Macro motivation should stay more or less the same whereas their Micro motivation can change as the story progresses. Every action that character takes should be informed by their Strengths, Weaknesses & Quirks, serve their Micro motivation, which then serves their Macro motivation.
When Do They Want It?
Timing in storytelling is critical. There’s a reason why most stories don’t involve a quest that can happen next year. If what your character wants isn’t something that can be addressed by the story, then you need to change it. Mind you, side characters can have motivations and desired that are never addressed, but your main characters need to want something and it needs to be something immediate, whether that’s a Micro or Macro motivation.
Think of it like this. Yours truly is a true Muscle Car fan. There’s nothing I want more (okay, World Peace + SMILEY FACE + Wave to the crowd), but that’s a Macro motivation for me. Right now, I want a donut.
So, you are writing a story about a character who wants a muscle car (and it’s about the trials and tribulations of how they get one), but the first scene is driven (ha!) by that character’s want/love/desire/NEED for a donut (with sprinkles!), then you have a Micro motivation that gets your story going, tells the reader something about the character and gives them a point of entry emotionally where they can identify with that person. You can expand on this by having them dream about what colour (yes colour, I’m Canadian*) they’d want the car be while they eat the donut. Then you can introduce more characters into the scene, or have a meteor drop on the donut shop - whatever works for you. The point is, the character needs to want something, whether that’s a particular thing or an action or a conversation with someone specific, for each and every scene. Build progression into the scenes as each Micro motivation is fulfilled (or denied) to create the journey towards that Macro goal.
*P.S. Canada is a deserted frozen wasteland suffering from a critical shortage of donuts and muscle cars. Please send both.
What Are They Willing To Do To Get It?
Now you need to decide how your characters are able to influence or be influenced by the Plot (you know, those things Literary Bestsellers don’t have - I kid, I kid!) in order to achieve their goals. This is where completing Step 1 really comes in handy. You, as the writer, need to very intimately aware of what each of your characters is capable of.
We know that Leia is willing to lie to Darth Vader’s face(mask) in order to keep the plans safe. We know that Vader is willing to BLOW UP A PLANET in order to punish her for not giving him the plans. He’s also willing to force choke people who annoy him, reminding us all why we love him and why WE SHOULD NEVER HAVE THAT POWER.
What your character is willing to do to achieve their goals says a lot about them. Heros generally don’t sacrifice innocents, villains do, whereas anti-heros are indifferent. Sometimes you can wring out great drama from having a character go beyond their defined limits and do something great/terrible BUT this must be treated with the appropriate attention and acknowledgement, otherwise it just looks like your characters are inconsistent.
For example - Rick from The Walking Dead starts off very noble, but over the seasons, has done some pretty crazy things. Has his character been compromised or is it growth? Has the achievement of each of his Micro goals/motivations (survive current horrible situation) changed his Macro goal (rebuild society)?
Step 3: The Hero’s Journey
Now we need to combine what we’ve formulated about our characters and put it into action. How does VeryMuchMe progress from eating a donut at a mechanic’s shop (yes that’s where he went) and dreaming about a car, to actually fulfilling that goal? You’d need to give him a good mix of strengths, weaknesses & quirks to round him out, but this doesn’t all need to happen at the beginning of your story. These dimensions can be revealed as the story goes along, you just need to give your reader enough of a sketch of who this person is in order for them to invest in the journey.
The thing to know is which qualities and motivations to reveal up-front and decide what would be revealed as the story went along. The last thing you want to do is be revealing critical information about your protagonist, or antagonist at the very last minute. Sure, you can say there’s something to be gained from the surprise ie. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time?, however readers can feel cheated if the character displays unforeseen qualities that just happened to get them out of a jamb at the right moment. This can be seen in stories where the main character is a Mary Sue (an idealized projection of the author).
There is also the danger of making your character too good at everything, which removes the suspense from the proceedings. There’s no challenge in seeing Superman beat up bank robbers, so that’s why Kryptonite was invented. Likewise, seeing Rey from Force Awakens combine the skills and abilities of Luke, Leia and Han with no training strains credibility, which can annoy your reader.
Your character should progress, achieving Micro goals along the way, perhaps revealing or building on skills, abilities and traits previously mentioned.
But what if my character stays the same throughout the book?
Then you need to ensure that this staticness is not merely flat, that the actions they take influence the world and the people around them, progressing the story and the other character’s journeys. If nothing this character does matters at all - then why are they in the story?
This brings us to the end, the conclusion, the climax, the denouement, the big kapow, the Death Star blows up and everybody goes home. This is the point where your character should achieve some sort of resolution of their Macro goal. Not to say that they necessarily need to accomplish said goal - after all, Vader got his ass kicked out into space, so he didn’t get his revenge until Episode 2. That being said, Luke got to feel The Force, Leia got to organize the attack on the Death Star, Han got to his payment, but also some redemption for being such a selfish rogue and Chewie presumably got fireplace and a nice glass of wine, possibly a tummy rub.
Not everyone has to get what they wanted, some characters can and should display their growth in how they deal with not achieving their goals. But to go more in-depth on that, we need to take a look at The Empire Strikes Back!
That’s all for now, keep writing and keep crafting!