The Most Memorable Story Element
What makes a good story?
Some people might list out things like an exciting or intriguing plot, well-defined surroundings, or a satisfying finish. Those are necessary things, and well-worth discussion! But what do most readers really want when they pick up a book? And what do most readers talk about as the reason they enjoyed (or hated) that book?
They want characters that matter to them:
- Characters that intrigue or irritate in thought-provoking ways.
- Characters they relate to or identify with.
- Characters that have a problem so interesting or profound that the readers must find out what happens to them.
Essentially, readers want characters who will move their emotions, change their thought-patterns, or challenge their perceptions. And today’s readers expect to get that emotive journey going immediately, in the first paragraph or less!
No pressure, authors…
In my last article on worldbuilding, I talked about the need for maps, which enable both you and your readers to better see where things are happening, in order to engage more fully with the action taking place. But, if you only have maps…well, you’ll have some nice pictures. I’m guessing you want more than that.
Today’s topic, characters, are what draw the readers in…and keep them in. Characters are arguably the most important element of your worldbuilding toolbox, and certainly are the most memorable. Through them, readers experience different perspectives and better understand the drama you’re portraying. You need to build them strong and alive from the start.
Your characters must be able to use their voice or presence to endure (or appropriately succumb to) whatever nasty events your plot throws at them. Special care needs to be taken to make sure they stay consistent but interesting while they move the story forward. It’s a lot to keep track of, but they’ll pay their own salaries if you get it right.
So, how to go about it?
Creating a base character is easy. Ever played Sims? Or basically any RPG? Or even just people-watched? Pick a species, gender, name, age, basic personality, strength or weakness, whatever. Done. No problems.
But, to get a character who moves the story and makes memorable scenes, there’s a few specific details you’ll need to pay attention to. Books upon books have been written on this topic, and I’ve read a few of them! But for today’s worldbuilding purposes I’ll stick to just three main ideas:
- And wishes.
The Core of a Character
The seed for a story and its world can literally start from anything. Some people imagine a climactic ending, and write to find out how that ending will come to be. Some realize a starting spark from experiencing particular locations or events. And some may meet or envision an intriguing individual and wonder what they would do ‘if…’
However you start the story, it’s your character’s core that will keep it going. This core is their true essence, the center of being that roots them in real life. Characters need a heart that readers can feel beating or see bleeding, that’s full of expressed emotions, memories, natural responses, and all the other things we humans do without thinking.
The catch is that characters, like real people, often misbehave. They may do things they shouldn’t or avoid things that your story demands they do. Some won’t feel natural no matter what you write, preventing the easy rhythm that should come with a more established creation.
How do you go about finding or crafting their cores in those cases?
Answer: You talk to them.
When I butt heads with a particularly stubborn character, whose antics are threatening my entire storyline and causing me no end to grief and head-to-keyboard pounding, I will force a sit-down with that obnoxious piece of fiction, and use one or more of these tactics:
- Interview your character. Have an imaginary heart-to-heart to figure out exactly what they want. This will point to their core self. Ask them questions related to your storyline, and write down the responses they would make from the perspective or history you’ve given them. The last section in this article lists some sample questions for this.
- Double down on their bio. Who are they, really? What do readers need to know about them from the words they speak or the actions they take? Putting their history in better focus can help to redirect their energies, and ultimately pull your story into a more productive focus as well.
- Rethink the story. Is your character running amok because you’re just in full-out vomit-mode drafting, more interested in wordcount or writing something than in coherency? OR, is the story not actually meant for that character, but for a different one who has been diligently interfering?
- Rethink the character(s). Are they what your story needs, or do they need to be toned down (or up)? There are certain individuals in real life who are never, ever going to get along. Ever. It makes for great initial conflict, but at some point in a story, you have to be able to resolve it. If you can’t, you’ve got the wrong set of characters.
You probably won’t realize your character’s full or true core when you first start out, and this is totally fine. Characters grow with their authors, and visa versa. But by the end of a first draft, a character’s core should be fairly well established and visible, meaning you can then go backward to edit in or strengthen their core as needed throughout the rest of the story.
The Place of a Character
Who are your characters in your story and world? Good guys, bad guys, foils, anecdotes? It’s easy to fall into ‘place tropes’, or stereotyped roles, and those do serve a purpose: We humans like categories, and our minds work best if we can categorize.
But if your story is all about good guys being good and bad guys being bad, and you smack a healthy little moral on the end to round it all out—well, Aesop beat you to it, and he was better. So please don’t.
The strongest, most intriguing characters, the ones that fit in a world and move the story best, are the ones who have a place outside the stereotype. Their natural inclination to lean one way more than another will still result in them being seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ overall, but a relatable, ‘well-placed’ character will always have elements of both traits.
This is easier with heroes. Since the story follows them, often exclusively, we see the world through their eyes while being treated to all their flaws and triumphs along the way. If done right, we can get a nicely rounded personhood, someone fully melded with their world, and readers will learn to root them on despite and because of it all.
Villains are trickier. The best-placed ones have good traits and core intentions (maybe even more than the heroes!), but they choose to use them the wrong way. Marvel Studio’s Thanos is a good example. All he wants is peace within a balanced universe, which isn’t a bad thing to want! It’s the actions he takes within the world (ok, the universe) that place him as a villain.
And what about all those foils, anecdotes, accessories—the beings who fill your world but don’t necessarily fill your story? They need a reason for their place, and it needs to be more than just ‘because I want a tavern here.’ Readers don’t want every life story, but you do still need to give these smaller people an interesting place that has a purpose in the larger world.
One of the ways to do that is to pay attention to their developing voices as you write their words. Every worthwhile character will have a unique voice, and you can use this to help you determine where they belong in your world and why. Some things to consider:
- Dialects. Where are they from? Are there words, phrases, or histories from their area that make certain patterns of speech more natural than others? Be careful how you write these: Heavy dialects can be difficult to read. (Think Huck Finn!) And some stem from racist or discriminatory patterns you might not intend for your story.
- Tone and Pitch. Is their voice raspy or smooth? High or low? Loud or quiet? Consider how those differences might change their word choices or cadence of speech. Consider how their voice might be heard and appreciated (or not) by the characters around them.
- Pacing. Their personality is most evident here. An excitable or irritable character will often use clipped but active words, and will jump in to speak without thought, making for rapid exchanges. A sad individual may drone slowly on, Eeyore-like, while a shy one may be hesitant, fearful to speak at all.
- ‘Catch Words’. Only particular characters—or perhaps only one character—will say certain things. For example, not everyone is going to use the word ‘honestly’. Some might say ‘in fact’, ‘really’, or ‘indeed’. Explore a thesaurus to find the right catch words for your characters. But be careful not to use them too much.
Without these believable role-placements for your characters, the world dies. You may have an incredible map or a detailed world history, but if your characters don’t fit—and especially if your main characters are out of place—the rest won’t matter.
The Wishes of a Character
If you give your characters the chance to speak as themselves, from their core, with their own voice, your story should progress more easily. At the very least, you’ll begin to recognize how your character would naturally behave in a situation, and be able to work with that.
Of course, characters don’t speak or act for themselves—you’re responsible for that. But most writers can tell when something’s off, and in those moments, your characters are talking to you. What they’re saying will usually have something to do with their personal wants. I find that these are best summed up by three common statements children make:
- You’re not my boss!
- Don’t distract me!
- I need your help!
What do kids want when they say these things? Independence, trust that ‘they’ve got this’, and aid when (and only when) they call. Adults ask for the same, usually in more oblique fashion. So characters, if they’re properly modeled after real people, will want all this too. The author-character relationship is thus not a dictatorship, but a partnership.
As a result, forcing your characters to go one way or another simply because your plot dictates that it must, isn’t gonna fly (sorry, Plotters, I feel your pain). Both you and your readers will sense it. You’ll lose your characters as you fight with them, and you’ll lose your readers. The plot will resolve as planned, but it will feel contrived or convenient rather than being a natural end.
Rather than having such an unfortunate finish, gird yourself up, admit that you’ve likely missed something, and sit down (again) with your character to hash things out in more detail. Yes, it feels repetitive. It might even feel redundant. But any counselor will tell you: People just want to be heard. Characters are the same. Some deeper things you might ask them about:
- Their feelings: What causes them to feel the most happy, sad, scared, excited, angry, isolated, disgusted, loved, etc? Why? What people or places make them feel this way?
- Their core need: What do they most want? Note that this should be an internal need like ‘more self-confidence’, not an external drive like ‘more groveling subjects’.
- Their reasons: Why do they want that? What fears, failures, hurts, hopes, or successes have led them to this need?
- Their limits: What are they willing to do to get what they want, and why? What are they not willing to do? Would they be satisfied if…?
- Their potential for change: What would change any answers above? Are there if-then clauses anywhere? What would they do differently if their life circumstances allowed?
Remember that these answers don’t have to remain the same throughout your story. Few heroes or villains start out that way, after all; their circumstances mold them to pursue their path, and that path will never be a straight line. The wishes you identify in one chapter can and will change—some in a moment, and some over time. Allow your characters that space.
Working as a Team
Your characters are worldbuilding tools, but they are also much more. Use them correctly, interact with them as if they were real, and you’ll see them come to life. They’ll become the guides to your storyline and world. At that point, your writing will cease to be a solo endeavor. You and the characters you’ve created will be a team.
Trust them to do that. See where they lead you. You can still keep your storyline intact even as they follow tangents. And, you have control of the backspace key. So don’t force your story: Let your characters help to build it.
It’s pretty cool when they do.
Looking for more writers’ tips and insights? Check out these articles!
Tandy Malinak was engrossed in visual art, stage performance, and storytelling before she knew what the words meant. A second-generation homeschooler with a BA in Elementary Ed, she also knows kids and homelife; set her down with a cup of tea, and she’ll go until you stop her. She loves fantasy, sci-fi, Nintendo, board games, studying the Word, the smell of a campfire, the sound of ocean waves, and all things feline—to name a few! Originally from Seattle, Tandy now lives in Chicago’s northside with her husband, 2 dragon-loving kids, and 4 cats.
Tandy recently perched herself on Twitter’s branch. She’s still figuring it out, but will make noise there eventually.