As readers, we all want to be drawn in by characters. We want to empathize with them and be drawn in both sensually and emotionally. We want authors to write characters who take us on a journey and present us with questions that challenge our own beliefs and perceptions. And we as writers want to write the next Willy Loman, or even Harry Potter.
But complex characters don't come to life on their own. They spring from our imagination as writers and trigger the imagination of our readers. That, then, begs the question: How do you write compelling characters? Here are some of my thoughts and where I've been going in my planning process.
Gasp! Yes, I said planning.
One of the things I've heard about writing is that it is important to get something written on paper. Your first splatter of ideas is never going to be perfect, usually it won't even be good. But then you revise and revise, then revise some more. This is worth repeating because it means that your character can be two-dimensional at first. Revision isn't just about grammar and spelling. It's about redrawing the map, building up the topography into a 3-D model, and coloring it all in.
So here are a few things I've been thinking about as I've done some recent revisions. I hope they help you.
1. Why and How?: Although you should definitely be asking the who, what, when, and where questions about every character interaction and every scene, why and how are two crucial important questions in the longer character arc. These two will involve a lot of backstory that you will have to work hard to restrain. In my recent revising I've tried to keep in mind that every action and word is motivated by a thought or feeling. This means it's important to think about a character's goal in each scene and what motivates them toward that goal. But in the "show, don't tell" headspace, a character's motivations can't come out as long soliloquies between them and their sidekick, nor as internal monologues. I've been trying to stick with actions and reactions to things, reserving the monologues for particularly dire aftermath scenes. I've also been trying to keep the gestures subtle. I want to make use of communication through body language as often as I can since in real life we often subconsciously pick up on cues about another's mood by a shift of weight or tightening around the eyes. That makes it hugely important to interacting with others.
2. Develop Layers: People are complex. My characters should be, too. In my current novel project -- which focuses on the characters in the second short story of my anthology Three By Moonlight: A collection of werewolf tales - I've done a lot more layering in the current revision. It's been a challenge to layer without info dumping, to keep the threads relevant throughout the book, and to tie them together at the end. Within the larger plot, there should be subplots. My process has been to tie each subplot to a specific character whose own storyline is peripheral to the novel. The major situation they're facing becomes a subplot when it affects the relationship to the main character. The nature of the relationship between these characters and how they interact determines the level of involvement on the part of the main character. Meanwhile, the supporting character reciprocates by becoming involved in the activities of the main character. Each scene with the secondary character will include some new aspect or progress in the subplot. This weaves in and out of the larger narrative. One of my challenges has been to decide the right time to bring the supporting character and subplot back to the forefront.
3. Let the characters be unique: Think about the kinds of characters you want in your story. Each character should add something unique, be it the witty banter, the emotional support, or the self-doubt. There are models to look at for diversity, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Star Wars. Each story needs a person who believes in the main character no matter what. It also helps to have a mentor figure, someone who's been there and can warn the main character, whether they listen to them or not. Each one needs an antagonist as well as someone who is the example of what would happen if the main character took the darker path. Each one of these character types adds dimension to the main character by comparison and through interaction. The main character's reactions to their questions, decisions, and actions demonstrates important elements of the main character's personality. If there is a child character, that is the perfect time for the main character to show their kindness or vulnerability. If there is a hostile character who constantly shouts at the main character, it is a chance to show patience and careful thought or impatience and insecurity-driven anger.
4. Let the characters breathe: In action-driven genres it is hard to get the balance right between fight scenes and downtime. You don't want the plot to slow down too much, but you need to allow the reader a breather from all the guts and glory. You also need to allow your characters time to think and feel while they're recovering. They need time to process and plan, and to react to the crazy shit that just happened. Give them some time to work things out or to freak out. If your characters don't have time to think and feel, and for the readers to connect with the characters via shared experiences of trauma, heartache, or joy, your characters will be two-dimensional and flat. This may bring in, as mentioned above, characters who only come around when the fighting is done, characters who provide the physical and emotional support that helps the protagonist survive. Of course this doesn't mean info-dumping, it's important to stick to describing things via actions and reactions, but if your character's are going to make progress and change over the course of your story there needs to be places for them to learn from what they just went through.
Ultimately, most of the agents and publisher's I've looked into want "character-driven" stories. To me that means complex characters inhabiting a complex world, ones who are written in such a way that readers empathize with them and who draw readers in by engaging with their imagination. We as writers have a responsibility to our readers and our own talent to craft characters that have a life of their own. This is far from a perfect list, if there is such a thing. I hope, though, that someone finds it useful in their own process.