What’s the most important element in a piece of writing? Is it the plot, the characters, descriptions, dialogue, or the style?
Obviously, you can’t single out only one. A powerful work succeeds in combining all of them in a unique mix producing a master creation.
Having said that, you’re probably better at one writing element over the rest and working on your strengths will work to your advantage. Building characters, though, is crucial and can be fatal to your writing. It’s not to be neglected under any circumstance.
A mundane theme can be saved by a great writing style; poor dialogue can be replaced with a fantastic storyline, and descriptions can be skipped altogether if it’s not your cup of tea. Undeveloped characters, however, are not to be hidden or overlooked by anything else.
So, how do you build a strong character?
Make Them Real
This is probably one of the most common pieces of writing advice: make your characters believable. What does it really mean?
It means that your character needs to be there for a reason, not just for pushing the story forward.
He/she has a real life, with his own fears and dreams, and you have to show this.
Your character doesn’t need to be typical to be believable. The peculiar ones are even more interesting, but it’s your job to make your reader relate to them.
Understand Human Psychology
To build great characters, you’ll need to understand people’s psychology: what are they thinking, what are they feeling and experiencing, why are they doing what they are doing?
Get behind the obvious. Be in the backstage with them. Sit them in a chair and let them talk away. Be their psychiatrist. If you truly listen, you will learn.
Be Your Character
When you immerse yourself in your writing, you get lost in that alternative world and you start living it. This is when the magic happens and you become your character.
By self-reflecting and walking in your character’s shoes, you allow yourself to experience what you’re writing about first-hand. The more it feels real to you, the bigger the chance that the reader will feel at least some of it too.
When writing a play a few months ago, I experienced what building characters really means.
In a play, that’s all you have: characters and dialogue. The characters need to be developed before you even start writing. They existed before you wrote your story.
You just need to show who they are and what they are about. Let your reader meet them under the impression they’ve met them in the street. Your character’s story is your reader’s story now. Fiction can be just as real as non-fiction.
Remember to ask yourself ‘why' when developing your character. Even if it seems an unimportant detail, you'll need to know the background. After all, you're the almighty creator.
Over to you: How do you build your characters?
For fifteen minutes write about a character of your choosing. Build a character profile by answering questions like: who is he/she, where does he/she live, their past, secret desires, small habits, future ambitions, lifestyle, dreams and nightmares, everyday routines, hidden thoughts etc.
When you’re done, post your practice in the comments. As usual, be supportive by giving feedback to others’ practices.