Everyone who reads (or watches films) can remember characters that stuck with them: characters we loved, characters we were in love with, characters we wanted to be, characters who terrified us. But what makes them memorable? What makes them good?
“Good” characters are, above all, realistic – but what’s “realistic” in fiction usually departs in significant ways from the “reality” of everyday life. Here’s how to get better characters.
1. Good characters want something.
The first thing to ask, when you’re developing any character, isn’t their age, sex, eye color, or choice of wardrobe. It’s what they want.
Not “want” as in “man, I could really go for a soda right now,” but “want” as in the thing that is driving them through the story – the one thing they want, right now, more than anything else.
Depending on the size and scope of your story, that thing might be very large (save the world), or it might be very small (no, really, give me a soda). Whatever the thing is, the plot must involve that person moving towards that thing, and being thwarted repeatedly. Ultimately, they’ll either get the thing or not get it.
The ancient Greeks, in fact, divided all their drama along these lines. If the characters got what they wanted, the story was a comedy. If not, it was a tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays can be sorted the same way. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are both full of teenage lovers and raunchy jokes. What makes the first one a comedy and the second a tragedy? In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers end up married – and in Romeo and Juliet, they end up dead.
Very large stories often have characters who want more than one thing in progression, or who want more than one thing at the same time (Harry Potter wants to stop Voldemort, but/and he also wants to have a family). Some small stories do too. When characters want more than one thing, point #2 comes in.
2. Good characters are their own worst enemies.
Think back to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry deals with any number of challenges and foes, including the Dursleys, Snape, Malfoy, Peeves, disposing of Norbert, troll in the dungeons, Devil’s Snare, flying keys, Quidditch matches, exams, staircases that go somewhere else on a Tuesday, and, ultimately, Voldemort. With a little help from his friends, Harry deals with all of these on his own.
Except one. There’s one obstacle in the entire book/film that someone else actually has to take out of his path. One obstacle that threatens to derail Harry completely, and against which Harry himself is powerless. Remember what it is?
It’s the Mirror of Erised.
Harry doesn’t stop vising the mirror of his own free will. Dumbledore has it moved someplace Harry can’t get to it in the ordinary course of his life at Hogwarts. In fact, we’re given to understand that if the mirror had stayed where it was, Harry would have gone on visiting it. And, if he had, he might well have become so distracted that he failed to stop Voldemort entirely. The mirror, remember, shows Harry that other thing he wants most in the world: his family.
Sure, Voldemort’s a scary evil freaky half-alive dude. But he’s not actually the threat Harry can’t deal with on his own. The bigger threat to Harry Potter is Harry Potter – or rather, it’s the moment Harry’s two most important, crucial desires collide with one another.
A good plot needs both a good protagonist and a good antagonist. But a great plot needs characters whose desires are capable not only of tripping them up, but of tearing them apart.
3. Good characters aren’t particularly self-aware.
Writers, don’t let your characters grow up to understand why they do things.
You need to understand why characters do things. An effective plot, and effective characterization, requires you to understand not only what your characters are doing, seeing, and thinking, but also what they’re missing. And when you know a character has the information they need to solve the puzzle, it’s your job to make sure they don’t solve it until the right moment.
In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling does this primarily by not giving her characters the final piece until the last moment. But there are other ways to do it too. I like to distract mine: about two logical thought-steps away from a character realizing exactly what’s going on and how to stop it, I set something on fire, start a fight, or make the caffeine wear off so they decide to go to bed instead of thinking anymore.
Good writers are incredibly aware, not only of their characters, but of themselves. They’re constantly questioning why they react in certain ways and why other people react differently to the same situations. But good characters are horribly unaware. It’s what keeps the plot moving.
4. Good characters aren’t all that good.
About halfway through reading the draft of my first novel, my editor remarked that she’d begun reading with the assumption that I’d based one of my main characters on my husband, but that she’d had to revise that opinion. I replied, “Yeah, my husband is too comfortable with himself to be a good fiction character.”
She said, “Your husband is too good to be a good fiction character.”
The best people you know are probably horrible characters. The best characters you know are probably not very good people, when it comes down to it, even if they manage to do very good things.
The essential matter of all good fiction is conflict. Conflict between people (Harry vs. Voldemort, Kirk vs. Khan), conflict between a person and their environment or circumstances (Harry vs. the Dursleys, the Enterprise crew vs. every weird anomaly space has to offer), conflict between two of a person’s needs or desires (Harry’s desire to defeat Voldemort vs. his desire to belong, Kirk’s desire to save the woman he loves vs. saving the Enterprise from never having existed at all).
Conflict is messy. Conflict is mean. Conflict forces us to choose a side or an action, and in making that choice, we’re forced to face all available options – even those we’d rather not admit we thought of. When the conflict is in the way of a goal the character wants desperately to achieve, they may consider (or take) desperate measures to get it.
Incidentally, some of the best recent works in film and literature have dealt head-on with this point by looking at what happens to characters after they’re done being the “good guy” and have to deal with the fact that the “good guy” had to do some pretty bad stuff to beat the “bad guy.” The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is obsessed with this question, as were the Hunger Games novels. (Firefly went one step further by asking what happens when the good guys don’t even win.)
Tl;dr – Good characters are messy little balls of want. They want lots of things. Not all those things are compatible. On top of this, the world around them thwarts their wants at (nearly) every opportunity. They’re willing to contemplate, and even to do, some pretty un-noble things in order to resolve the tangled mess they find themselves in. And then they have to live with themselves.