Voice is an important element of a book. But what is even more so? The people IN the book.
First and foremost, you’ve got to write for yourself. If your character is naturally boring, simple, stupid, bothersome, loathsome, worrisome or noisome, that’s your decision. If your character is a chauvinist, that’s fine. If you’d hate your character in any other circumstance, that’s great, too. No one has to like your characters’ character.
Bear in mind, however, that while you write for yourself, if you want your story to be profitable, you’ve got to edit for your readers. Writing for yourself can equate to twenty pages of imagery and detail, but editing for your readers can equate to fifteen pages of the same story, while keeping all pertinent information intact.
What’s this got to do with your characters?
If a reader doesn’t like, can’t feel for, sympathize or fall in love with your characters, they’re going to stop reading. So, let’s work on helping you build some awesome characters.
Some writers create dossiers for their characters, giving them a name, age, birthday, job. A complete background, before the story is even written. I don’t exactly do that. I simply let the character build him/herself and write down the personal attributes as we go.
If you want to write a dossier first, feel free. If you want to fill that dossier as you go, that’s cool, too. If you don’t think some people’s job matters and choose not to specify, hey, it’s your character. Now, let’s get to the good stuff.
Characters have to be believable.
A character in your story is real. Therefore, it has to FEEL real. Do people ACTUALLY do or say that?
Take a horror movie, for example. When you watch a horror movie and the main character (or other supporting characters) make the dumbest mistakes, are you pleased, or annoyed?
It’s unbelievable. When most people run in the dark, they’re focusing on the ground in front of them, not staring behind themselves nearly the entire time.
S/he can be dense, but even the average ditz klutz practices common sense when fleeing.
Reading is much different than viewing, and readers are usually less willing to stay engaged.
Only use dialog that is believable, and if you use your characters to relay information to the reader, don’t make it obvious and DON’T use As You Know, Bob dialogue. Let’s do a quick example.
Regarding two siblings. “As you know, Mom left for a conference in New York. She won’t be back for three whole weeks.”
I would like to meet anyone who would say this to their sibling. People don’t state the obvious (OK, they do, but not in this manner), so your characters shouldn’t either. Highlight your dialog and read it independently of non-dialog. Does it make sense? Is it believable? Does it flow?
Characters SHOULD be consistent.
If he’s a shallow jerk now, why does he all of the sudden develop compassion for humanity, only to return to his jerk self tomorrow? If she’s a brilliant genius now (and even holds a Mensa card), how can she be dense the next day?
Characters should grow or develop.
Either we find out more about them (their likes, dislikes and history), or we watch their butterfly transformation into a better (or worse) human being. These things give your character dimension.
(Main) characters should be addictive.
If they’re not likable, they’ve got to be relatable. If they’re not relatable, they’ve got to be so despicable, we can’t help but love them. There’s got to be SOMETHING that draws us to them. And, bear in mind, narrators are characters, too.
Know. Your. Audience. Some may love the drama your characters bring. Some may have enough of their own and don’t want to add more. You can’t please everyone. But, at least as far as characters go, the main character MUST be believable, and contain a quality that is as addictive as chocolate-covered espresso beans. Yup. Exactly. Not everyone likes them, but enough do to sustain the market.
Know. Your. Audience. Some people would like to see strong heroes and heroines, or even a hero/heroine pair working together. Some people live for the villains.
Characters can be flawed.
After all, they’re (probably) human, too. They don’t always have to say the right thing (unless you want us to fall in love by what they say).
Use them like salt.
Spare your readers from characters who don’t bring real depth to the scene or add to the plot. This also means, don’t throw in 100 characters when all you need is 5. There’s a cashier, fine, but we don’t have to know about her past if we won’t ever see her again.
Characters are one of the five elements of a story, and impact it greatly. Whether that impact is positive or negative depends on how well they’re written and used.