Storytelling is a truly fun and exciting form of art. We all love to read about a school of witchcraft and wizardry, a fellowship out to destroy a ring, vampire romances, a clown terrorizing children all the way into their adult life.
Sure, all of these are intriguing, and they keep the pages flipping. But what is the real back-bone of a story? Characters, of course! Without Harry, we would never have known the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone. Had Frodo not taken the ring from his uncle, how would we learn how true of a friend Samwise was, and who else would’ve had the will power to destroy the One Ring? Without Edward, Bella would have remained a depressed, average teenager. Without Bill, Richie, Mike, Ben, Eddie, Stan, and Beverly, would Pennywise still be terrorizing Derry?
The Main Five
Not only does a story require strong characters, but it needs specific characters. Most stories demand at least five characters: the antagonist, the protagonist, the mentor, the skeptic, and the sidekick.
J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings is the perfect example for this. Frodo Baggins is obviously the heroic protagonist since he is the ultimate leader of the story, and he brings on the resolution. Samwise Gamgee is the sidekick. He is Frodo’s loyal, supportive best friend who follows him throughout the entire journey. Gandalf the wizard is the mentor. He shines a light of wisdom, and he teaches and guides Frodo along the way. Our skeptic of this story is Boromir. The skeptic typically goes along with the main character, but usually is shady. Boromir took on the honor of joining the group to destroy the ring, but he briefly finds himself wanting the ring for himself. The antagonist is ultimately Sauron considering he practically wears the badge of “the bad guy”. However, Saruman definitely fits the role as well with his loyalty to Sauron. But that debate is for another day.
What Makes a Character?
Now that we have that ground covered, let’s discuss the fundamentals of a character. Well, first and foremost, that’s simply a person in a story. However, creating a character is not that easy. What does this person look like? Where do they live? What does this character want? How will his own desires affect the story? What are his weaknesses? Now we’re getting the picture!
What makes a character? Number one would be his personality. Is he independent? Is he young? Old? Let’s take a look at Harry from J.K. Rowling’s series. She described Harry as a skinny boy who had messy black hair and green eyes and a lightning bold scar. Unfortunately, this is not enough. Harry grew up with a harsh life under the roof of an aunt, an uncle, and a cousin who all hated and mistreated him. From this, Harry understood how to appreciate people who truly cared about him, and he was able to see through more shady people like Draco Malfoy. By this, I am indicating that your character requires some backstory.
Also, your main character should not be perfect. As children, we all felt a strong connection with Harry. But why? Because we related to him. Readers cannot easily relate to a character who has no flaws. The story will eventually become boring. Not only was his appearance flawed, but he had emotions. Crazy right? A heroic kid who can perform magic actually has the ability to cry; who would have guessed? That’s something that can pull your reader deeper into the story. And when your reader is emotionally invested in your book, they are more likely to finish and enjoy it.
One major trait that is crucial to your character is his voice. Yes, I said it. A voice. True, a book is just words on a page, and you cannot physically hear the character speaking, but each character should have a specific tone and vocabulary. Harry was very sarcastic and a little arrogant. Ronald Weasley, on the other hand, was more childish and a bit grumpy. Hermione Granger was clearly witty, and we could hear her intelligence through her larger vocabulary and her more precise language. Without character voice, your reader will feel like a ghost is telling them the story, and it will feel monotonous and flat, like that history teacher that put you to sleep everyday in high school.
The Little Things
What else makes a character unique? What are you ding right now? Chewing on your fingernail? Perhaps you’re twirling that one strand of hair? Or maybe you’re tapping your foot? Well, these little things are called quirks, and if you want a genuinely unique character, that puts the icing on the cake. In Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack Torrance had a habit of eating aspirins and rubbing his mouth when he craved alcohol. In King’s other novel IT, Ben Hanscom tends to bite his thumb. These tiny details make for a much more believable character.
The Character Arc
The final step for your character is the character arc. Now, what in the world is this, you may ask. In a sentence, the character arc is the change and development a character experiences throughout a story, whether he notices it or not. In life, we grow, we learn, and we change based on our life lessons. Guess what, your character needs that, too. If your character endures this back-breaking or mind-bending journey, and he learns absolutely nothing, and he remains the exact same, what was the point in dragging him through the mud? When your reader sees your character’s growth and his accomplishments, your reader is usually proud of that character, and he can be moved by your story. What if Frodo never realized that he needed Samwise by his side on his way to destroy the ring? He would have kept rejecting him, and he would have never understood the importance of friendship. See the lightbulb yet? Or what would have become of the Lucky Seven if they never understood that faith is stronger than fear? Would they have ever killed Pennywise once and for all?
As you can see, there is so much to making a solid, believable character. A story cannot be told by a plain John Doe who has nothing to remember him by, and who does not go through the pits of hell to learn a lesson and make his greatest accomplishment. A character must have depth, and you are the one who has to give him that significant breath of life.
I hope you can carry this with you on your next character development session. Have fun, and remember to keep writing!