We are drawn to fiction novels because they provide a great escape from the real world. Whether they are magical realms or alternatives to our real-life situations, we want to be immersed in the world created by the author.
But fiction has power. Novels show us different perspectives, challenge our beliefs, and expand our world views. They can also validate our beliefs, emotions, and values. They may even inspire us to act and try to revolutionize the state of the world.
Your characters are how you connect with and inspire your readers. Without amazing characters, your story will fall flat.
Think about your favorite fiction novels. You loved the characters, at least the protagonist, and rooted for them throughout the novel. You saw their world through their experiences, related to them and their goals, and probably felt like they were your friends. The bond between you and those characters is why you are sad when the story comes to an end.
So how do you create powerful characters that live on in your readers’ minds?
You give them strong personalities, authentic emotions and emotional reactions, relatable flaws, wants, and needs, and create conflicts that make them question their morals and force them to change.
We all have a strong personality, one that is uniquely ours. We are shaped by our families, friends, co-workers, and our circumstances.
For our characters, these things are included in their backstories.
To truly understand your characters, you need to create in-depth backstories. While most of their lives before the story begins won’t make it onto the page, it’s important you know what they have been through that shaped the way they are, their beliefs, and their moral code.
One character may have a mother who ignored them. Another may have an older brother who took care of them when they were young. And another may have been the older sibling who filled in for absent parents or had a loving mother and father who encouraged them for their entire life.
Each of these characters had different experiences that helped shape who they are. Each will have varied personalities because of their varied situations.
Authentic emotions and emotional reactions
Emotions are where a lot of authors get stuck. We all have emotions, but putting them on the page can be difficult. It’s where we bare ourselves to our readers the most, and we tend to hold back because we are afraid of being judged by others. But our emotions are how we bond with others. And they must be included in your novel to create empathy and strengthen the bond between your readers and your characters.
Your emotions are valid and when you put your emotions and emotional responses in your novel, your readers feel their emotions are valid as well. You are helping people; I promise.
Whether your fictional character is a hard ass at the beginning or an emotional wreck, your reader will understand them, because they’ve probably been there at some point in their lives. If they haven’t, you are showing them an alternative way of feeling and helping them to understand what makes others tick.
Dive deep into your emotions. Pull out what you think is the nastiest, darkest, most inappropriate emotional response you’ve had and give it to one of your characters. Tap into the times where you were elated, euphoric, and exhilarated. Find the moments where you were petrified, horrified, anxious. Then ask yourself what your physical reactions and your thoughts were at those times.
Physical reactions express your emotions just as much as your thoughts about the situation. Then put your characters into situations where these thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions feel right for your characters.
Relatable flaws, wants, and needs
By creating flaws in your characters, your readers will relate, because they have some of the same flaws or know someone with them. What the character wants will also be understandable because you’ve established their background. Their need, while the character doesn’t know what that is, the reader will know and root for them to get it.
Flaws can be in their personality, speech, physical appearance, bad habits. All these together help create a well-rounded character with room to grow.
Some may even help establish their wants and needs.
What a character wants will hold them back for most of the story. As they try and try to get what they want, you will put obstacles in their way that they must overcome or shift their way of thinking. These conflicts will help them move closer to finding what they need, each one increasingly difficult and pushing them farther from their want.
During the climax, they will finally get what they need and grow as a person.
Your reader will be rooting for your character the whole time. They may even get a bit frustrated because they understand what the character needs, but the character is so focused on their want that they are missing it.
Of course, we want the easy life, the one where everything comes to us, but that isn’t reality. While you are writing a fiction novel, the personal struggles and challenges are how we grow.
The situations you place your characters in shouldn’t just be there to add conflict. They should challenge your characters’ morals and beliefs. They push them out of their comfort zone and toward getting what they need.
Each conflict will test their desire for their want, their established beliefs, or their moral code and provide opportunities for growth. Like us, the fictional character won’t understand the purpose of the conflicts, but analyze them during or after the climax and finally get it.
Your characters are what your readers love first and long after they’ve finished your novel.
You can have the most outlandish world that breaks almost completely from reality, and if you have great characters with strong personalities, authentic emotions and emotional reactions, relatable flaws, wants, and needs, and conflicts that make them question their morals and force them to change, you will have a great story!
I hope this post helps you write powerful fictional characters that live on in your readers' minds.
Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor