Everyone wants to create those characters that have people talking about them long after they close the book; real people having real conversations about people that don’t exist—or…do they?(In my evil man voice)
Creating intriguing characters takes time but if the reader doesn’t care about who it’s happening to, at some point they will stop reading, no matter what is happening in the story.
So how do you create amazingly memorable characters? You can begin with physical descriptions but remember this is just your starting point. For example, you write that Bill has glassy eyes, and rotting teeth. Take it a step further. Are his eyes glassy because he’s ill? Does he drink heavily? Is he mentally ill? And if he’s mentally ill, has he been that way all of his life, or did he slip into a state after the death of his wife? If he drinks heavily is he an angry drunk? Is he generally a timid guy until he throws back a few? Is he a weepy drunk? What sets him off? Allow the character to emerge until you see him clearly and know him personally.
Create realistic dialog. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but well written dialog can paint vivid pictures. If you use accents they shouldn’t be contrived or force, make them as natural as possible. If you’re going regional as Kathryn Stockett did so well in The Help, either study the region or persons from that region. The last thing you want is for your character to sound like a cross between Andy Griffith and Robert De Niro, unless, of course, you’re actually going after something like this.
Also, use aspects of yourself to add depth and life to your characters. Reach past the friendly smile and pleasantries others see when they first meet you. Author, Anne Lamott says in her book on writing, Bird by Bird:
Look within your own heart, at the different facets of your personality. You may find a con man, an orphan, a nurse, a king, a hooker, a preacher, a loser, a child, a crone.
Yep, you may be all or some of the above (Look at it as cathartic. Here’s where you get it all out on paper without being arrested.) Delve within and you may be surprised by what you find. Then develop characters that are as multi-faceted as you.
Your characters should not be one dimensional or predictable. Think of your characters in three dimensions: look, smell and feel. Evaluate this description from Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye as the author describes the Breedlove family:
The eyes, the small eyes set closely together under narrow foreheads…They had high cheekbones and their ears turned forward….You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realize it came from conviction, their conviction…It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each a cloak of ugliness to wear…
If you read nothing else about this family you see and feel their soul in this passage, their very center. In your imagination you begin to drape flesh and bones upon their center; they become alive.
You probably won’t include everything you know about your characters in your novel, but the extra backstory will make it easier to give them authenticity. You will begin to feel and understand what moves, motivates and drives them. You will love some, and despise others, but most importantly you will know them, as will we.