Readers want characters that are believable, and it’s your job to create characters readers will understand. How do you build characters? Start with these six basic traits.
- Biological–Whether human, animal, machine, or something else, first figure out what your character is. Add gender, age, ethnicity, etc. Note that your supporting characters typically only need the first layer of this trait to complete their function in your story.
- Physical–Besides appearance, include quirks, mannerisms, etc., but use these sparingly as they are like seasoning in a good recipe (too much isn’t good, but just a little makes all the difference). Again, supporting characters only need one or two physical traits identified, but your reader will want to “see” your main characters.
- Attitude–Although this trait is intangible, how your character walks, talks, and responds to people and things offers your reader deeper insight into the character. Characters can be optimists or pessimists, quick- or slow-tempered, energetic or lazy. Attitude is often the basis for motivation and for decision-making. As a general rule, your supporting characters need only one attitude trait revealed to your reader.
- Motivation–There are three levels of motivation: subconscious (instinct), semi-conscious (emotion), and conscious (deliberate). As your characters’ wants and needs are revealed to your reader, so is motivation, and that’s critical to your plot. Characters with multiple layers of motivation are deeper, more human, and more believable. Use motivation as your base for conflict (both internal and external).
- Thinking–There are only two levels of thinking: ethical and expedient. Ethical deals with right and wrong, while expedient deals with survival. Revealing what your character thinks lets your reader inside the character’s head as he or she struggles with the human condition.
- Action–Action, not thinking about action, keeps the reader turning the page. Action provokes conflict and creates complication, crisis, and climax.
You might want to create a checklist template of these six basic character traits and use it to help you get to know your characters better. For every trait, create a scene that shows that trait in action so you can link the trait to action in your story.
Avoid overloading all your characters with all these traits. Instead, highlight the traits that matter to the story. If you’ve worked with characters at all, you know they take on lives of their own and you often find yourself following their lead. That’s fine, but you’re still the author, so hold them accountable to the six basic character traits. You ultimately decide which ones work in your story and which to save for another time.