In the old days, many literary characters were rather flat, presenting only heroes or villains, or those followers who assisted them, satisfying us with predictable outcomes, and knowing that good always wins the day. That is no longer the case. Our audience has evolved. Readers prefer complexity and depth now.
Of course, it helps if the writer has their own complexity and depth and understands one’s self, accepts one’s gifts, shadows and everything in-between. This allows writers to see our characters with less bias. We can love our characters, even if they do something foolish or cruel. We see the whole person, and we know the character might mend their offense, or learn from their mistake. Once your characters are both good and bad, we start to appreciate them as real human beings, or human-like aliens, or adorable monsters. When we vilify a character entirely, or glorify them to a point of god-status, we lose the beauty of believability. We become separated. The intimacy is gone.
One way to develop a character is to base their qualities on someone you know. My favorite approach is to combine elements of two or three people that seem to naturally gel. Then I introduce him in a setting that best illuminates him. Or have her unexpectedly surface and reflect qualities that are mirrored in an unusual circumstance. No better way to know a character than to watch them respond to immediate strife. Use a plot twist, strange foil characters, and relatable settings to reveal this person to your readers.
Now build the layers…
Layer One: Externals
The name, the body, the mannerisms, and the style. This first glimpse establishes much in the way of how we present ourselves to the world. Sloppy, or Tidy? Elegant, or edgy? Willowy, or stoic? Nervous, smooth, or robotic? Marital status? Children? Pets? Art on the walls? What do they drive? Is their home in the city, country, or suburbs? Are they attractive? Will they become attractive?
Layer Two: Performance
Does this person live in chaos, flitting from one thing to the next? Are we comforted by their rituals? Does this person barely smile when greeted? Do they mouth off to their loved ones? What sort of voice, gaze, and nonverbal responses can we observe? Does this person look around them, or stay in a private bubble? Affectionate, or cold? Isolated, or engaged? What is their job? Is this person intelligent, funny, sensual, or innocent? Do they study, work out, binge television, or hide out with their phone? Drive too fast? Confront strangers?
Layer Three: Attitude
What is important to them? Do they like their life, their job, their children? Do they treasure their space or entirely neglect it? Do they eat without thought, or measure each meal as a perfect answer to their current mood? Do they order with individual requests? Do they assure people that any order is more than fine? Do they know their worth? Do they have quick wit and assured opinions? Do they know how to take criticism? Do they condescend?
Layer Four: Language
How do they use language? Is it lofty and proper? Relaxed, slang, colloquial? Are they profane and bawdy? Specific jargon to their expertise? Do they joke around? Is there a dialect, a strong accent, references that identify their region?
Layer Five: Private Thoughts
Above all else, the character’s inner thinking, the mental responses which no other character knows is the most intimate and personal a reader can get to this individual character. This is the special realm of the fears and motives. Good manners be damned. We get to see the vulnerable and sometimes hilarious underbelly, the hurts and the rages, the crazy beneath the outer shell. Internal monologue is powerful and a delight to share.
Enjoy building your characters, and remember to give them some quirkiness. People are not from a familiar mold. They are someone we must get to know with individuality, complex motives, and they are potentially evolving as well.