The characters that stay with you, those who burrow into your heart and stay forever, not only have strengths and weaknesses, they also have passions, hobbies, and habits you will remember long after you finish reading. And the best characters, the ones that ring the truest, are usually those whose quirks, passions, strengths and weaknesses all work together in a way that drives the plot of the story.
Jane Austen deliciously carried character traits to just beyond extreme, and ensured that those traits directly led to problems. Beautiful Creatures, one of the richest YA novels I've read recently, has a whole cast of wonderfully quirky characters. The superstitions of Amma, the crossword puzzling, pencil-wielding housekeeper, turn out to be pivotal to the MC's survival. Lena's obsessive graffiti habit and the memory necklace that lets her take her childhood with her from place to place make her unique, but the graffiti also serves as a clock that ticks up the tension as you read toward the climax. Uncle Macon does a wonderful Cary Grant gone vampire/incubus, but he's also brilliantly, dangerously self-sacrificing in a way that is pivotal to the story.
Events shouldn't happen to your characters. Your characters must create events. And yes, that's true even in a plot-driven novel.
To Create Essential Characteristics and Characters
Quirks and hobbies make your characters unique. Paddington Bear loves marmelade. Atticus Finch never lets himself be seen without a vest and tie. Traits like this help round out the characters, but you develop a quintessential character by picking one character trait required for the novel and heightening it, making it extreme. Harry Potter is the most famous young wizard. Eeyore is the most depressed donkey ever. Quintessential is about making a character superlative in some way. But all great quintessential characters are also essential.
An essential character is one whose chief characteristic drives the plot, and whose additional characteristics also contribute to the action. This is a layering process. It doesn't happen in one pass. You develop your plot. You build your protagonist and antagonist and figure out what makes them tick. You go back to your plot and figure out how your character's quirks, fears, and goals make them act, react, and oppose each other. How they endear one character to another. Then think about how adding different character traits could heighten the tension or introduce more complications.
Here are some things to ask yourself as you work through the items from the worksheet:
- What is the character's role in the story? What does she need to do? How does this conflict with her known goals and unconscious desires?
- What characteristics and special abilities does she have to have to let her to play her role?
- What characteristics would make filling that role almost impossible?
- What is her family and childhood baggage? Who is whispering in her head?
- Is she basically a dark character? How can you make her vulnerable and sympathetic?
- Is she a happy character at heart? What dark secrets is she hiding?
- What were her most spectacular failures, and how can those failure help her succeed or fail to succeed at a crucial moment in the story?
- What was her most brilliant triumph, and how can it set her up for failure?
- What mementos and keepsakes does she treasure? How can you make her lose them? How will she react?
- What are her phobias and favorite places? How can you use them against her?
- What are her hobbies? How can you make them essential to the plot? What do they teach the character that she couldn't have learned in any other way?
- What are her favorite foods? How does sharing those with other characters mark progress in the relationship between them?
- How does she respond to her environment and face challenges or adversity?
- What are her personality quirks? Does she lie compulsively? Does she never pass up a dare?
- What are her pet peeves? Does she hate it when people misuse a particular word? Do people who talk a lot drive her nuts?
- What are her goals, dreams, and greatest fears? What makes her work? What holds her back?
- How does she see herself? How do others see her? Does she know there is a disconnect?
- How does she react to the opposite sex?
- What are her opposing traits? Does she love to read but hate to be alone? Is she family-oriented but can't stand kids?
Keeping track of everything on a worksheet or in a character bible and consulting that worksheet as you write can cut down on rewrites at the same time it will help you make your characters memorable and timeless. It also serves as a great resource while you're editing.
Happy character building,
Additional information and resources:
Character Worksheet Part 1: Is Your Character Novel-Worthy?Next: Character Worksheet Part Four: Are Your Characters Walking & Talking (Body Language, Manerisms, and Habits of Speech.)
Character Worksheet Part 2 Shrinking Your Characters to Enlarge Them
Download the Character Worksheet
Plot Complications Worksheet
100 Character Quirks You Can Steal from Me
Random Character Quirk Generator
The Phobia List
Quirks and Kinks
Quirky Characters -- A Book List
Breathe Life into Your Characters
Character Driven or Action Driven?
When Characters Show Their Weakness
Secrets of Great Characters from 6 SF Authors
How the Four Elements of Fiction Are Related
Writing Fiction: Developing Characters
Epiphany in Developing Character and Plot
All Characters Are 3 Dimensional, Right?
5 Secrets about Your Character's Secrets
Creating Memorable Characters
20 Questions to Ask Floundering Characters
Developing Character Traits
9 Traits of Sympathetic Characters
Develop Increased Sympathy for Your Characters
15 Days to Stronger Characters