Some of my favorite books are ones with excellent characters. Flat characters, in my experience, brings nothing to a book. It doesn’t matter how well written the book is, or how driving the plot is, if the characters are flat then the book falls flat.
Here are the top three things that I’ve learned through book reading and experience.
Get to know your characters
There is more to knowing your character than know what they look like and how old they are. You also need to know their history, their preferences, their character traits–everything. How well do you know yourself? That is how well you need to know your characters. This will help you determine how your character will react in different situations. Also, it will help prevent you from being surprised when your character starts writing the story for you.
There are several books and other online sources out there to teach you how to build believable characters. Many of these books contain charts such as this one, which amount to long lists of questions. These questions are meant to help you brainstorm and think about your character. The more of those kinds of questions you can answer, the better you will get to know your characters.
My favorite book on the subject is The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters, which you can buy from Amazon.com.
Do your research
You’ve heard the advice, “write what you know.” This advice applies to your characters. It is easy to create characters who know the same things you know. However, sometimes you characters will know things you don’t know. Are they a doctor, but you aren’t? Do they know how to weld, but you don’t? If this is the case, then you may need to do some research. The more you know about their field of expertise, the more accurately you can write about it.
If you can’t relate to your characters, something is up
With my most recent story, I created a character that took me a very long time to relate to. This character was utterly different from me. Other than what he looked like, I didn’t know a thing about what he knew. Most importantly, his character was completely different mine. What I mean is he thought completely different from me, and his reasons for doing what he did were completely different for why I do things. I had a very hard time relating to him.
Some of these problems I solved with character charts. I figured out his history, his likes and dislikes, etc. Some more problems I solved by researching. My character couldn’t didn’t have emotions, and so I researched things like psychopaths, sociopaths, and alexithymia. Even after all that research, however, I just couldn’t connect with my character. What’s more, my character wasn’t connecting with the direction the story was taking. It wasn’t until I expanded my research to include autism and Asperger syndrome that my character finally clicked with me.
What this comes down to is this: if you can’t relate to your characters, then neither will your readers. So be careful when you write about things you aren’t familiar with. Research and character charts will go a long way, but in the end, you may need to rethink either your characters or your story or both.