Let’s face it. It’s hard to care about a story if you don’t care about the characters. Reading fiction is almost always an act of empathy: for a brief time, we get to live another life. Therefore, above all else, writing compelling fiction requires empathy, too—lots of it. It’s one thing to know facts about your characters: “Lucy Pumpernickel (LP for short) is a motorcycle stunt performer who teaches History, lives in a fictional hamlet called Nevermind, and is the youngest of five siblings.” But it’s another thing to bring Lucy Pumpernickel to life. So, let’s take a look at a few ways you can lift your characters off the two-dimensional page and make them multifaceted beings.
1. Know your characters’ desires and obsessions.
Every character wants something because every human (assuming your character is human) wants something—usually a very long list of things, but there are always some desires that rise to the top. What do your characters long for, lust for, wish on stars for? Why do they want these things? What are they willing to do to get them? Often, a character’s desires are what sets a plot in motion and spurs the reader to start rooting for them (see empathy above).
2. Know your characters’ obstacles and what’s at stake for them.
If the things your characters want most are easily attainable, then your story will probably be very short, and there won’t be a whole lot for the reader to invest in. Life is filled with obstacles, sometimes external, a lot of the time internal, and knowing what forces are working for and against your characters—particularly those pesky inner demons—as well as the potential costs they face in striving for their desires, gives you the makings of dramatic tension, and that is the engine that drives your plot forward.
3. Know your characters’ backstories, particularly the events in their lives that have shaped them and the things that continue to haunt them.
That thing that happened on the playground when L.P. was seven? That thing she saw at her best friend’s twelfth birthday party that she shouldn’t have seen? That letter that never arrived? That life-changing event that unfolded in the woods and has never really stopped unfolding? That strange object she’s kept hidden for years? This is the stuff of flashbacks, little dashes back in time to moments when something pivotal happened to a character. Reaching backward helps to create forward momentum as you give readers greater insight into who your characters are—which, in turn, gives their desires and obsessions more gravity and urgency.
4. Let your characters speak, and make sure they don’t all sound the same.
In my experience, dialogue is one of the things writing students struggle with the most. “Show, don’t tell” goes the oft-repeated cardinal rule for writers, and dialogue is part of that showing. Sure, a narrator can tell us all sorts of things about a character, but there is nothing more vivid and animating than when we can see and hear a character in action for ourselves.
Everything about how a character speaks—their word choices, their cadences, their pauses, their tone—along with which things they choose to say, which things they leave out, and how what they say measures up against their internal thoughts, gives us vital information about who they are and what types of relationships they have with others.
5. Let your characters transform.
So now LP, your stunt performer, is on her journey. We know what she wants. We know what stands in her way. We know what’s at stake for her and what she’s willing to risk. We know her backstory, her secrets, her voice. But as the story carries her forward—or as she carries it forward—how does she change? Of course, a lot of this will depend on how the plot unfolds. And just as we map out the plot, we must map out a character’s inner journey, too, because this is where the heart of a story usually resides (see empathy, again, above). If at the end of all of this, your character’s internal life hasn’t budged, your readers might feel as if they’ve wasted their time.
After all, aren’t we always in a process of transformation? We grow older and, hopefully, wiser. We solve mysteries, about ourselves, about the world, about those things we once wanted—and I say “once” because even our desires are ever in flux; they change as we change. Some of us arrive at revelatory places; some of us arrive at a version of the happy ending we always hoped for; some of us crash or unravel—and everything in between. All of this is the stuff of life, and in order to give our characters the lives they—and our readers—deserve, we have to let them turn. We have to let them transform. We have to let them surprise us.
Rita Zoey Chin is the author of the widely praised memoir, Let the Tornado Come. She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland and is the recipient of a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, an Academy of American Poets Award, and a Bread Loaf scholarship. She has taught at Towson University and at Grub Street in Boston. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Tin House, and Marie Claire. This is her first novel.