Without interesting characters, there would be no reason to pick up a novel, as humans are all basically voyeurs, and our most favorite pastime is observing each other. With a good read we can get inside an imaginary human’s head, see what makes them tick, understand their flaws and foibles. So beyond what physical descriptions can tell us about our characters, what can we do to make them alive and breathing, especially considering some modern schools of thought decry physical descriptions at all? Let’s take a look at this “Checklist on Creating Characters,” taken from David Starkey’s Creative Writing – Four Genres in Brief (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), a terrific textbook I’ve used in my Creative Writing classes:
- Do you know your main characters and their desires well? You should have a strong sense of who your characters are, where they live, where they’ve been, and the driving forces that make them act. They should know what they want and what they’re prepared to do to get it.
- Does your story show us only the essential aspect of your characters? While it’s important that you know your characters thoroughly, you will be revealing only a tiny sliver of that info on the page. Show your characters being themselves, only more so. Whatever conflict they are involved in should bring out a heightened sense of who they really are.
- Is your description of each character appropriate to, and necessary for, that character’s function in the story? You, the author, should always have a clear mental picture of your characters, but you should ask yourself if a complete physical, psychological, ethical, etc., description is really necessary for all characters. Unless some physical or emotional aspect of your character is necessary to the storyline, leave it out.
- Are the characters’ names appropriate? Do it reflect their personality? Their ethnicity? A physical characteristic? Try not to have too many Sams, Steves, Saras or Susans, as so many of the same letter can be confusing. And if that 1840s character from the remotest region of cloistered China is named O’Brien, you better have a reason why.
- Should that character be named at all? He’s a doorman the protagonist breezes past on the way out. Who cares. Unless, of course, later on he comes after him with a shotgun.
- Are your main characters different at the end of the story than they were in the beginning? The most convincing fictional characters are both consistent and surprising. Reread the opening and concluding sections of your story. Do you see a difference in how your protagonist began and how he or she ends up? If there’s no growth–or considerable decline–then you have a static character, and your readers will feel cheated.
- And at the end, will they leave your readers wanting more? Essential if you want to continue your story in a series. Like breadcrumbs through the woods, leave a trail of intriguing tidbits about the characters you’d like your readers to follow into the next book. And the next, and the next, and beyond.