As John Gardner says in his book, Creating Fiction, characters are the first reason readers read a book, therefore they must be alive and three dimensional, in other words, compelling.
How do we make our characters compelling? Aristotle, writing 2,000 years ago, wrote that sound characterisation was founded on four principals:
- good (morally worthy and sympathetic)
- appropriate (representative of their sex, class or age)
- lifelike, and
I'm no Aristotle, but I have a list too:
- They must relate somehow to the real world, while at the same time be larger than life.
- They must be believable - they must be written as convincing and consistent.
- They must be fully fleshed, motivated, interesting.
- Characters must speak with the right voice, often the most difficult part.
- Let the characters face the expected, but also the unexpected to bring depth.
- Let the characters reveal themselves through believable exchanges with other characters.
- Minor characters have their place. They are not so important in a short story, but in a novel minor characters help move the plot along, bolster the main theme, add layers of suggestion. A good writer always uses minor characters well as they keep an eye out for their potential in the story. We've all heard cases where the minor characters take over the story, demanding a bigger role.
- Take maximum advantage of brief moments in your story to let your characters shine.
- Even if your character is a monster, they should/might/ have a soft spot, a crack in their armour.
- Finally, if your readers don't care about your characters, they won't bother reading on. Make your characters sparkle, make them capable of change.