Let’s imagine that I am one of the characters in my next book. I’m going to tell you a few things about myself so you can get to know who I am. I am thirty two and I live in Cyprus. I am married. I love my husband. I have brown hair and blue eyes. I used to smoke but have now given up. I go out for coffee at least twice a week. I read more than I used to. I have eczema on my hands.
Now, whilst all of these statements are true, it’s not that interesting, right?
What I gave you here is a list of characteristics that describe me. You might now know me well enough to recognise me in a cafe, but you don’t really know anything about me. You don’t know anything about my character. So let’s take these superficial ideas and ask some questions.
Why do I live in Cyprus? Why do I love my husband? Does my brown hair and blue eyes suggest that I might have Irish heritage? Why did I give up smoking when I used to enjoy it so much? Do I read more now because I write, or because I live in a country where I understand less of the television? Do I only get eczema when I am stressed?
Now if you knew the answers to these questions you would know considerably more about who I am as a person. You would know more about my history, my family’s history, my health, my emotions, my opinions on life, and the things that make me behave in a certain way at a certain time.
The difference in these two scenarios is depth.
We all have different friends. Maybe your closest friend is your sister, your husband, or a girl you knew at school. But whoever they are you know that they are your best friend because you can sit and tell them anything. No matter what it is, you know they will love you afterwards and be there for you. You will also know people that know all of the facts from the first scenario as far as you are concerned, but you know that they don’t really know you because they couldn’t answer any of the related questions. They don’t know who you are.
As the writer of your story, you have to be your characters best friend. You have to know them inside out. You have to be able to predict their behaviours and thought processes as if they were an extension of you, because after all, they are. Many of my characters have small elements of my character. In The Loss of Deference, Dan bought Marlboro cigarettes because when he saw the packet he remembered the Marlboro man being a cool hero type. That was me. Mark from Identity X has eczema on his hands that only comes up when he is stressed. This is also me.
You don’t have to use your own personal history to give your characters depth. But what is important is that you make sure they get one. Nobody is born as an adult, unless you are Benjamin Button, and we all have a history that has helped to make us who we are. Make sure you give this same background to your characters, because this will help them transcend the page and come alive to your readers. Give them somebody to care about.
Here are some ideas to help you develop your characters, and help turn them into three dimensional real people, not just flat ideas of people with a few quirks.
Give them a history
If they were raised with strong religious views, how has that altered their choices in the present? If they were abandoned as a child, do they struggle to be a good parent? Maybe they even avoid parental responsibilities completely.
Who are they?
Get to know them well. Where did they go to school, who was their friend, what was their first job, what is their sexual orientation. Get to know your character outside of the story. We all have friends that we socialise with, but yet we don't know very well. Make your characters one of your best friends, the person you can chat over coffee with. Make them the person who you can describe in greater detail than hair colour and what they wear.
Define their goal
What do they want? It's all very well knowing who they are and where they come from, but what are they interested in for the future? For example, Captain Corelli wanted to get through the war and make it home. He wasn't interested in finding love, but it found him and this helped to grow his story in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Because we know his goal, we can decide how he would be likely to react. This way we can understand their opinions and behaviours.
Make them individual
Don’t create a caricature of your characters. Make them somebody interesting, with flaws and quirks, likes and dislikes. Nobody wants to see a flawless hero. Even Superman had a flaw. Remember what Kryptonite did to him?
Give them a voice
As a writer it is important to have a voice, and agents always say they are looking for something original. Give that same attention to your characters. Their voice comes through not only in their actions, but also dialogue. Make sure it is believable. Your average gun wielding gangster is unlikely to curse a mishap with 'oh shoot' and the local nun is unlikely to swear in God's name. Let your character decide on their vocabulary, not you. Let them speak freely in a voice that suits them.