Ask yourself this: have you ever read a fiction novel from cover to cover that didn’t absolutely captivate and enthrall you? We’ve all taken that seemingly promising book off the shelf only to return it in a matter of time feeling disappointed. This often compels us to question what we believe makes a true page-turner. Is it a dramatic saga so wickedly scandalous, laden with symbolism and full of surprises that we cannot bring ourselves to put it down? Or is it rather those who criticize the societal norms that we all secretly question to the likes of Fitzgerald or Thoreau? Both options are equally plausible, as there is something far more important than the genre of a particular novel that makes it a lasting memory in the minds of readers.
Whereas the quality of the plot and the individual’s genre preferences certainly act to determine whether they will enjoy a particular novel, strong characters are absolutely imperative to any work of fiction, regardless of genre. If readers don’t fall in love with our main characters, how can we expect them to stick with us past the first few chapters? Creating a remarkable character is often easier said than done, so without further ado, I would like to offer some timeless tips on effective characterization to aspiring novelists.
1. Create A Character Sketch
Reading this title, you likely had one of the following reactions:
- “Whatever happened to just writing the first thought that came to mind?”
- “That’s more important for novice writers.”
- “But it’s so tedious, I just want to write already!”
I’m going to stop you right there and say that character sketching doesn’t have to include every minute detail; however it is smart to at least write down or type out an outline of your characters’ most defined traits. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? How would you describe their physical appearance in terms of height, weight, hair color, eye color, face shape, you name it? What is their history? Are there any aspects of their past that could somehow interfere with their present life?
Asking yourself these critical questions prior to embarking on a new project gives you some direction in terms of who your character is and who you would like them to become. Few people can begin writing based on a random idea that popped into their head without having previously created at least a mental outline of their characters and the roles they will play in the story.
2. MBTI Typing Your Characters
While this concept may seem odd to some, I’ve found it to be helpful and even quite fun. Otherwise known as Myers Briggs Type Indicator, the MBTI test indicates personality types. Whereas character sketching allows you to map out the more basic traits of your characters, MBTI tests serve as a deeper psychological analysis of their personalities. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, each type consists of four letters. For example, I know that my type is ESFJ, which stands for Extraversion, Sensing, Feeling, Judging, while the opposite possible options are Introversion, Intuition, Thinking and Perceiving.
According to personalitypage.com, ESFJs are “…warm and energetic. They need approval from others to feel good about themselves. They are hurt by indifference and don’t understand unkindness. They want to be appreciated for who they are, and what they give. The ESFJ takes their responsibilities very seriously, and is very dependable.”
This is just a small fraction of the information available about ESFJs as well as all other types. There are whole websites that consist of profiles of each type, giving you an outline of all traits, including strengths and weaknesses and what sorts of careers and environments they would perform best in, along with which types tend to get along best with one another. You can first create a basic sketch of your character and then take one of the many available online MBTI tests according to how you believe they would respond, or you can read about the type you anticipate your character to be and use the profile as a guide.
This is especially helpful when inflicting drama on your character, as you will be able to imagine how they would respond in times of trouble or conflict based on your knowledge of their type. MBTI typing allows you to create unique yet realistic characters that your readers will likely be able to relate to, especially if you include a wide range of types in your novels and stories. Some of your readers may not even be aware of their own types yet be able to feel a certain kinship with a character that they happen to share traits with.
3. Base Your Characters on People You Know
Before I explain this point further, I feel it necessary to mention that this may not always be appropriate. When I say base your characters on people you know, I am not advising you to simply create an identical but literary version of your best friend or sibling. Rather, I am saying that those you know well can serve as great inspiration.
Carefully consider whom you would like to include and maybe even ask them whether they would be okay with you basing a character on them ahead of time. It’s always better to be safe as opposed to receiving several very strongly worded emails from that one relative you aren’t too crazy about or a lawsuit for libel (Which, little known fact, is also possible with works of fiction). Okay, that may be a bit extreme, but you never know.
That being said, ideas for some of your best and most well developed characters can come from your own experiences with people, particularly those you know best. Whereas it is probably smart to avoid including a former friend or disliked relative as an antagonist, it’s both simple and fun to imagine what you or your best friend would do when faced with the same situations as your characters. When writing about a character who is based on someone you know well and respect in your waking life, if done well, your readers will be able to notice your thorough characterization and seemingly personal relationship with the character.
The process of writing a gripping page-turner both begins and ends with strong characterization. These principles are just three of the many, many ways to go about developing strong characters in your works of fiction. They can be applied individually or together, depending on whether the character in question is to be integral to the plot or a static background character. As writers, it is our job to evoke strong emotions in our readers. Our goal should be to both have them on the edge of their seats, rooting for our central protagonists and begging for more, a feat that can only be accomplished with the practice of thorough and intentional characterization.