Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Being alive is weird. It comes with emotions, experiences, societal placements, and upbringings. We each have different cultures, hobbies, belief systems, identities, and ideologies that are a part of who we are. Instead of simply existing as gelatinous balls of flesh, humans contain multitudes.
Characters in narrative should be the same way.
One of the most insufferably boring antagonists is Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. His only drive is to Be Evil. There’s no moment where the audience can understand him or his values or his overtly sinister habit of drinking unicorn blood. We never see his other sides, his weaknesses, or the reasons behind his actions. Voldemort is just evil because he is evil. And though antagonists like Voldemort are easy to write and force the audience on the protagonists’ side, they don’t contribute to a satisfying story. Often, characters like Voldemort come off as inauthentic, sometimes trope-y, and push readers out of the story.
To help you not create Voldemort-y characters, we’ve formed a five-point list to help you ensure your characters are complex and three dimensional.
1. Give Them an Active Role
Let us tell you a story:
Sarah’s friend Mary comes to visit her. Sarah is happy about this. Sarah and Mary eat lunch. Mary has poisoned the sandwiches. Mary is gleeful as she watches Sarah choke to her death.
Here, we have told you several things about the characters, however, the characters themselves have done nothing. For example, let’s observe the second sentence a little closer. You are informed that Sarah is happy. What does this sentence characterize about her? Not much. All we can infer from this is that she probably enjoys being with Mary.
In order to characterize Sarah further with this sentence, we must make her active—she must be doing something. Include an action that tells the audience something about herself or her emotions. Show us how she reacts when struck with happiness. Show us why she made happy with Mary.
Writers often ask: “How do you characterize someone in a short story when you have so little time?” Subtly is the answer. By accomplishing simple things such as giving your characters an active role, they begin the metamorphosis from a name on paper to sentient life form.
Again, let’s review the second sentence of the story: “Sarah is happy about this.”
What action would show this?
All of these characterize Sarah in a different way—you can use any. What matters is that you select actions that are optimal for both illustrating who your character is as well as what their arc will be.
2. Establish Their Motives and Values
All too often, characters are re-sculpted, chipped away at to fit the plot of the story. They become a smeared painting void of shape, color, and intent. We can’t tell if they are reserved or loud. Clumsy or precise. Optimistic or pessimistic.
Not to say that a person cannot change their character, they absolutely can.
However, in order for the character to change, there needs to be a catalyst for that change—an internal development, unusual circumstances, a conscious decision to change. More reason to be altered than the plot wills him/her to. We don’t like wishy-washy people, so why would audiences enjoy wishy-washy characters?
A way to combat this error is by firmly and consistently establishing your character’s motives and values. What are they driven by? What do they care about? We recommend asking yourself this question before writing every major scene in your narrative. Doing so can build a more authentic and well-earned plot, and ensure the audience understands your protagonist.
This process can provide for more unique, less trope-y scenes, too.
Let’s say you have a morally grey mercenary-type character who is saving another character. She is motivated by money. What’s more authentic? Completely changing her ways for the person she saved but just met? Or selling that person to a pack of goblins along the roadside?
Ultimately, setting character values and motivations in stone can spark new ideas and has the ability to propel the reader down unpaved roads and new, unread adventures.
3. Give Them Goals That Matter
You are a cannibal. You are obsessed with finding the best meat for your ultimate dish. But, you value kindness and contribution—you only consume meat that was probably just taking up space anyway. Now, to propel your narrative, you are going to University. Your story will be about the struggles of getting into a good law school.
Compelling story? Maybe the first. We most likely lost you around the third sentence.
This is because we have attributed goals to this character that don’t matter to them.
For an audience to see and understand your character, you must put them in situations that force their deepest desires to surface. Doing this will often provide a more emotionally impactful narrative and build tension—when a character feels they have more to lose, everything becomes more threatening.
To go even further, by establishing goals that are central to your protagonist’s values and motivations, there is increased opportunity to illustrate your character’s unique personality, and their arc.
How does your character react when their values change? What do they do when they are threatened? How is your character putting what they care about at risk? What is provoking them to sacrifice these things in the first place?
Consider these questions. Having the right goals in place can make or break the characters in your narrative.
4. Create Contrasting Character Qualities
Imagine this character with us: a genius scientist was the best in his field but used radical methods, probably working on a weird contraption for some Evil Guy. What do you see: the wild Einstein hair? A German or perhaps a Russian Accent? A quirky fashion statement like an eyepatch or goggles or maybe even a hook?
This image appears because this character has been developed in this way several times before. It’s a trope. Predictable. Maybe even a little boring.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever write a mad scientist character. By giving a character contrasting qualities, you can subvert the trope thus creating a more interesting and complex character.
And there's an easy way to accomplish this.
Think of your character; perhaps he is a scientist. Now, write three truths about a scientist character. Here is an example:
He has no social skills.
He is solely motivated by discovery and ambition.
He is radical in his methods.
After that, write the exact opposite of these “truths” and think about how those statements can also be true. To continue with this example:
He is very charismatic.
He is motivated by family and love.
He values being safe and ethical.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the first point. What plot or scenes would a charismatic scientist provide? Maybe being charismatic allows him to get what he wants easier. Maybe he runs the show now, rather than working for someone else. Maybe he doesn’t believe he is evil at all? Maybe he’s attracted a large following from his charisma and doesn’t have to hide his experiments in a secret lab?
From deconstructing just one trope, we already have a potentially more original story and have opened several doors for our narrative.
We like this technique because it can be used for all instances. Just start with base qualities of the character: princess, protector, lone wolf etc. then add opposite qualities, or at least unique ones that will serve your narrative.
5. Add Flaws
We despise perfect people. It’s just a fact.
They always have everything going for them. Consistently do the right thing. They are conventionally attractive and never look tired or sweaty or messy. They are unflawed in every way. You might even have someone in your head now—can you feel the annoyance simmering?
As you can imagine, we may not like perfect characters either.
Flaws make characters relatable. More interesting. They can also add more tension and make the plot more complex. Take, for example, Percy Jackson. Without his excessive loyalty, his willingness to throw himself into dangerous situations head first for his friends, where would the plot go?
Your job as an author is to cradle your characters in a world and then shake it. Ensure they never sleep. Smash the cradle with a hammer. Set it on fire.
When faced with the opportunity to achieve their goals, what is holding your protagonist back?
Think about this question. Doing so will not only allow you to understand and develop your character on a deeper level, but will also (hopefully) create a more intricate story.
Now, it’s up to you. Consider the questions we’ve prompted. Poke and prod at your character’s psychological sphere. We promise you’ll sculpt a more complex character that feels authentic and relatable to audiences.