Did you ever fall in love with a fictional character? Did you ever hate one? Why? Because you understood them, agreed, disagreed, liked their appearance, smell, taste, reactions, fears, feelings.
How do you build well rounded fictional characters without overwhelming your reader?
1-Appearance. Don’t describe every little detail of the appearance of a character. You don’t need to tell your reader how far apart the eyebrows of Lord Tangur are, what you need is to tell your reader the way other people (characters) feel around that character. Avoid lists at all cost. Drop physical details, peculiar is better, in between dialogues, let other characters notice them, let the reader infer them by actions (Just like for descriptions, show don’t tell, remember?)
Bad description: Lord Tangur was six feet tall, black hair, dark eyes, a monster of muscle. His disheveled hair fell all over his face. His black armor shone in the dim light. He grinned. Annie was scared.
Better description: Annie, eyes wide, took in the dark aura that seemed to surround Lord Tangur, towering over her in his black armor. Only Annie’s chest of drawer was in between them.
“What do you want from me?” Annie blurted, stumbling backward.
Lord Tangur just grinned shoving aside the chest with no effort. A red scar across his left cheek made his dark eyes seem more intense, more alive.
4-Slaughter your characters. Not on paper, I mean boot them out of the book. Keep only essential characters. Do you really need friend 1 to bitch, friend 2 to flirt with the main character’s boyfriend and friend 3 to end up pregnant? No, you don’t. It could be just one friend. Too many characters disorient the reader. Merge several (compatible) characters into one. Sometimes you will sacrifice a bit of side story, but that’s okay. So, how many characters is a good number? It depends on your skill to differentiate them and make them memorable. Just make sure they play a role to move the story forward.
5-Avoid naming your characters with similar names or even the same starting initial. It’s confusing.
6-Introduce characters gradually, not all in the first chapter, unless you need to. I’m working on a book now where in my first chapter I had a group of seven friends, all of them relevant to the plot. I sweated nails for two days, then decided to focus on two main characters driving the scene forward, leaving everyone else unnamed as “friends” thinking I would introduce them later, which eventually I did. Except for two who were slaughtered in the process. (Tear shed.)
3-Develop your characters. People change, so do characters, but like real people they do so with good reason. Characters have reasons to act the way they do and you want the reader to feel, laugh and suffer with them. As a bibliophile I’m sure you had at least a WTF moment (or twenty) where a character did something “out of character”, nonsensical, not justified by the feelings the author built in you, the reader, for hundreds of pages. Don’t be that author. You want the reader to think, “YES! That’s exactly what you should do!” and one hundred pages later you want them to think exactly the opposite and not flinch, because things happened, feelings changed. When I was eight I thought I would have NEVER wanted to leave my house and hated my mom for wanting me to move. At eighteen I couldn’t bear to be within those same walls anymore. Eh.
Why? Because with the bad description there’s nothing the reader can remember, it’s just a list. The reader gets in his head a generic impression of a big scary guy. With the better description the reader knows from the start Lord Tangur is scary. We see that he’s strong because he shoves a freaking chest of drawers aside. We see he’s evil because he does nothing to reassure Annie. His red scar will be a very distinctive mark that the reader will remember. When Lord Tangur comes back in fifty pages after a million characters have paraded through, the reader might need a little reminder of who he is. You could just recall the scar.
Lord Tangur walked into the room and Annie’s blood turned into ice. She had hoped she would have never seen the scary eyes above the red scar again.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to reveal the appearance of a character all at once. You can add details throughout a scene.
By the way, I have no idea who Lord Tangur and Annie are. Like most things I write they were just there lurking in my head when I needed an example.
2-Mould characters around people you know. A rookie mistake is to have all of your characters act the same way, yours. Diversify your characters. You don’t have to like all of them. If you do, you probably wrote a boring story. Keep in mind that some characters might have opinions you disagree with. You have to learn to walk in their shoes. One character might be a mishmash of three people you know, and that’s okay as long as believable.
7-Let characters do their thing. Sometimes I have an idea of where the plot is going to go but then a character takes over and says things or does things I would have never expected and the plot changes. Of course I’m still the person writing (I think 0_o) but developing a character is like developing a world. They come up with their own ideas and you are not crazy. Don’t freak out.
Thank you for reading and happy writing ^_^
The Italian Saga continues!
Italy, the 80s. Learn, laugh, love. "Addictive!"