As a writer of fiction, I know how much a strong central character can do to aid a short story. In fact, much of contemporary literature is character-driven, like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Powerful characters shouldn’t be saved for a novel, however, if their story can be told succinctly in a short story. To develop such characters, you first need to understand what factors make a fiction character strong and relatable to your audience.
Naming A Character
Before you can start writing, your characters need names. Choose names that you like, that stir up emotions for you or have powerful meaning. If you’re writing a villain, use the first or last name of the boy who stole your lunch money in kindergarten every day. If you’re writing a love interest, conjure those butterflies-in-the-tummy feelings by borrowing part of your first crush’s name. Connecting yourself to the character through his or her name will open up the right door in your mind. All the right emotions will be there waiting for you when it’s time to create a personality.
Draw the Outline
Once you have a name in mind, start to envision this person. Is he tall, dark, and handsome? Does she have a nervous habit? What makes him angry? What makes her sad? Imagine this person to have real dimension. The only way your readers will ever believe this person exists is if you do first. Consider these factors when you’re creating a character:
– Physical characteristics
– General temperament
– Likes and dislikes
– Political, religious views
– Hopes, dreams, desires
– Short-term and long-term goals
Now try to connect these pieces of the puzzle to get the whole picture. Sometimes you can borrow elements of people you know in real life and paste them together. Other times, you can incorporate a trait that you aspire to or admire in someone else. Crafting a character goes beyond “He is tall. He likes sports.” and should hold some meaning for you.
Real People, Real Problems
Nobody’s perfect. Readers will love a character who has flaws they see in themselves. This connects you to the character, and the character to your audience. Think about how your character’s flaws might create a real problem for him or her. Does his greed cause his wife to leave him? Does her perfectionism get her fired from her job? Try to imagine your character in a real problem and follow that path in your mind. Developing a plot around a character gives you a clear path toward character growth. It also ties the plot and character together. This plot could only happen to this character; this character is the only one who could experience this plot.
If you’re writing about two cowboys in a saloon, they should talk to each other like cowboys in a saloon. Likewise for high-powered executives, kindergarteners, or hair stylists — whoever you’re writing about. Spend some time listening to how people talk. They don’t use proper grammar and punctuation in their speech. They do use slang. They might have an accent. See the words in your head, think about how they sound. A character who talks exaclty like he should often goes unnoticed, because he blends right into his story line. A character who sounds out of place, however, will bring your whole story to a screeching halt.
Moment of Crisis
Thinking back to those problems and that plot line, your strong, relatable character is going to need a strong, relatable (and appropriate) moment of crisis. This might sound like an exercise for developing plot, but the two should always work in tandem. What is the worst thing that could happen to your greedy, wife-leaving-him protagonist? What happens to completely upset the balance of your perfectionist’s world? An appropriate moment of crisis spurs plot resolution and character growth. How your character reacts to that crisis is what makes him or her strong and relatable to your audience. So think it through, put yourself inside your character’s head, and really explore the decisions he or she might make.
Follow these steps, always placing yourself in your character’s shoes, and you’ll have real, strong people woven into your fiction work.