Characters drive stories. Some of us may think we get that done with good plotting, but I disagree. When stories fail, characters pick up the plot and move it ahead. Great novels have both, but how many writers pen great American novels? Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck? And then there are those occasional authors of commercial fiction who leave us with dominant impressions of characters and stories that we just cannot forget. Think Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks and Jennifer Crusie.
So what makes a great character? It’s a combination of connection, likability and uniqueness. Without one of those traits, the character will not be a literary success story. We must find something about the character that feels familiar–whether it be familial similarities, goals, or professional affiliations. It is also imperative that we like or admire the character. Another word that attaches us to the character is respect. And finally, we all have a tendency to be attracted to unique characters–characters we just want to know more about–because we connect to them in some way and like them for whatever reason the author gives us.
As authors, where do we start? I start with a profile sheet–a great way to round out and get to know my characters. You can make your own character profile form. Include the physical–especially as it relates to the actual personality traits, but go beyond the physical with the character’s history and emotional needs because of that history. An author knows he/she has created a memorable character when that character cannot be extricated from the story–when you know that the character essentially belongs to the story. Try to take Scarlet O’Hara out of Gone with the Wind. Imagine taking Tony Montana out of Scarface.
Tie your character so intricately to your story that even you cannot imagine your novel without your character. Study, learn, imitate, practice. So, who are these characters? Listen, and they’ll tell you.