I almost titled this post, “Three Keys to a Relatable Hero”, but then, the hero shouldn’t be the only relatable character in a story. If you have a beautifully developed protagonist, and yet all of the supporting characters are flat as a stick figure…yeah. It doesn’t go over real well. Today I want to talk about three keys for making all characters three-dimensional.
You might think, duh. And rightly so. Every character needs a unique personality in order to come alive. But personality goes way deeper than those character sheets filled with questions about your character’s likes and dislikes. Personality is how your character views the world. It’s his intake and output. Everything he sees and does is filtered through his personal system. Personality is about what makes this character work. It is seen and acknowledged through the actions, dialogue, and preferences that he has.
Don’t limit your characters’ personalities to a few tags on a development sheet; (funny, witty, cute, likes bunny rabbits, etc.). Dig deeper and find their uniqueness. Why are they funny? What makes them tick? Something I’ve learned about characters is that, as an author, you’re doing less creating and more discovering. Forcing a character to be someone they aren’t never works. Instead, take time to learn about who this person really is. Find their core. A tool I really love for discovering my characters’ personalities is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Once I know enough about a character to type them, it’s incredibly helpful for digging deeper into their personality. Not just the things they like and do, but the reasons. All good characters should have a deep, unique personality, and not just a checklist of tags.
Whether your character is emotional or not, he will still feel emotion. Why? Because if he is a good character, he will reflect human nature. And humans feel emotions. Learning the depths of your character’s personality allows you as the author to better understand his emotional makeup. How will he react to a stressful day? Or learning that he’s just won first place in a contest? A character who feels little to know emotion is not a relatable character. Emotion is the essence of humanity. The ability to feel and connect and think is what sets us apart. God created us to be the deepest, most intricate beings on the planet, and that should go for your characters as well.
When thinking about emotion in stories, it’s easy to set your focus to micro, centered on the protagonist. After all, he’s the one the story is about. And it’s true, if the hero has no emotion, the story loses its emotion. But it’s important to give even the most minor characters believable, human emotions. Their reactions should be just as realistic as the hero’s when things go wrong. Or when things go right. Sometimes people think that emotion in stories only applies to the bad stuff, but that’s not true at all. Positive things; the upswings in your story merit just as much emotion as any other plot twist.
Characters who go through a story with no personal aspirations or desires strike me as flat, because that’s not what real people are like. Everybody desires something. And I’m not talking about the hero desiring the story goal. This is more than that. He needs to have a dream. Something he wants for the rest of his life; something that transcends the quest he’s on. In Project RENO, Colson’s mission—his story goal—is to unravel the clues left for him on a data chip from his father, pointing to an impending genocide. But what he really wants is to become an investigator; a private detective of sorts. One of my other characters, Dixie Fallon has a story goal of proving a theory, but her dream is to become an artist.
Each of the characters in your cast should have a dream; something they can cling to when the story gets rough. Giving your characters a deeper desire will make them more relatable to your readers, who also have desires and aspirations that they are working towards.
As I’ve said before, when I read a story, the thing that draws me in the most is the characters. Are they real? Are they human? Are they relatable? What are some examples of good characters that exhibit these key traits?