Think about a book you loved. I'll bet my own weight in Harry Potter or Jack Reacher novels that it was a character that earned your love. Maybe several characters. A group of friends. A family. A pair of lovers. A man and his sworn enemy. A boy and a kestrel.
Of course you'll also remember the story, and the world, and maybe something insightful with themes. But what mattered more than anything was the people. What they did. Who they hurt and who they protected. How they surprised themselves and each other. How they talked, lived, swore, hated, messed up, came through or went under. How they made you understand a political, emotional or life issue you’d never thought about so deeply before. How they kicked the hornet's nest or watched from the train.
And that's why a great story starts with captivating book characters. So how do you create fictional people who have realistic complexity, who’ll hold our attention—and our hearts—over several hundred pages?
Here are Some Tips for Writing Characters Who Captivate:
1. Don’t focus on what happens; focus on why.
I’ve seen many manuscripts where the book characters do things that seem inexplicable or stupid. But the problem isn’t the action. The problem is—we don’t understand why. A man risks all by beginning to keep a diary—Winston Smith, 1984. It’s because he has a little glimmer of a soul that can’t be crushed. Great fiction is full of people who do crazy things that are sure to end badly. The ‘why’ is everything.
This question of ‘why’ can even heal an apparent flaw in your book. If readers or book editors have flagged a plot event as dumb, it might be because you haven’t delved deep enough for motivations—especially if they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. And the complex reasons don’t have neat answers. Dig deep down into their hearts. Look for urges they find difficult to face; conflicts at war inside them. These questions will not be answered easily. Indeed, resolving them might take an entire book.
2. Look for a hole.
Most compelling characters have something they yearn for. A person they love or want to rescue. An ambition they want to achieve. An event they want to prevent or a fact they dread facing. Show that need or fear—this creates a powerful emotional bond with the reader.
3. Build the reader’s curiosity and empathy by giving your book characters difficult choices.
We’re all curious about ‘what would you do’ situations where the answer isn’t simple. And perhaps this leads to the dumb decision discussed in Point 1. Which can be driven by the yearning hole discussed in Point 2.
4. Think about the opposites inside your book characters.
A good way to do this is to consider people or roles that bring out different qualities. I have a game I like to play called Izzy versus Isobel. One name—two sides. Izzy might be fun and warm with her family, and Isobel might be a high-court judge who can bring a hearing to heel. But don’t stop there—what if empathetic Izzy emerged in the courtroom and the family gets the stricter Isobel? Then think about why that might be—a strict upbringing, a lack of confidence when not in a position of authority. Also consider personal chemistry. Suppose she’d been sane, mature Isobel for years—and then meets a person who unleashes wildchild Izzy?
5. Make their emotions and behaviour change as a result of the story.
This helps readers feel they have witnessed something immense. What should that change be? Consider the emotional hole, as discussed in Point 2. Perhaps there is more than one change—everything gets worse before it gets better. Or maybe your story is about a tragic downfall—the character rises to a golden period, then can’t handle the consequences.
6. Create relationships that matter to your characters.
Deepen some of them during the story. Make some of them end. This will add to the sense of a significant journey. Also, see Point 4—use relationships to soften a character who seems hard, or to show a tougher side to a sweetie.
These nuances will help you when writing characters who captivate your readers—and they’ll also captivate you. So follow these writing tips so that your book characters will seem so real that they surprise you, frighten you, inspire you, and keep you up late while you write it all down.
You'll want to tell their stories.