It’s not terribly controversial to say that characters are the heart and soul of storytelling–getting your reader emotionally invested in the well-being of your characters is the most surefire way to get them invested in the story as a whole. But writing characters is hard. How do you write a character that everyone will love?
There is, of course, no magical formula for how to write compelling characters, but here are three quick tips on how to take your characters to the next level:
Accept That Not Everyone Will Like Your Character
It’s hard to accept, but it’s the truth: it’s impossible to write a character that absolutely everyone is going to love. No matter how much work you put into writing the perfect backstory or the deepest, most profound character arc, there is going to be someone out there who dislikes your character. There’s nothing wrong with trying to write likeable characters–you definitely want to write likeable characters–but pouring all of your energy into trying to please the crowd will spread you so thin that you’ll end up creating watered-down caricatures that no one likes rather than characters.
Instead of focusing on writing characters that everyone will love, write characters that you love. This might seem counterintuitive, but if you love your character, it will bleed into every word you write–and if you love your character, odds are, other people will too! It’s better to write a character that a small group of people absolutely loves than a character that everyone feels just okay about.
Consider What Makes Your Character Necessary to the Narrative
Why is your character in your story in the first place? It might seem an odd question to ask, but nothing will alienate an audience quicker than cramming your story full of characters that don’t actually have any role to play in the narrative. This is not a condemnation of writing stories with lots of characters (just take a cursory glance at any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work), but it is worth sitting down and examining what role each of your characters play in your story and what makes the story impossible to be told without them. Are they the main protagonist or antagonist? A deuteragonist? A foil or lancer? Or are they perhaps a part of a Power Trio or Five-Man Band?
These examples, of course, can feel like sorting your characters into boxes, and some characters might not fit easily into these boxes. However, this does not mean that those characters are unnecessary to your story. Does your character provide information about the world your other characters inhabit, or illustrate a core theme of your story? Do they exemplify a lesson that your main characters need to learn, or act as a catalyst for another character’s character development? As long as your character has some reason to exist within your narrative, your reader will not feel like their time is being wasted by your spending time talking about them.
Once you’ve sat down and done this (particularly for your core group of main characters), you can then look and see if any gaps need to be filled. You might realize that your main protagonist is lacking any sort of character on their side that will challenge their beliefs other than the main antagonist. Or, your story might not require this sort of character, but you might realize that your core group requires someone capable of giving moral support. Every narrative is different, and will require a different combination of characters.
Consider Using Personality Typing
Regardless of how accurate or scientifically reliable you believe personality typing systems such as MBTI or the Enneagram are, they can make for helpful tools when you are struggling to figure out how your characters will react to certain situations or why they make certain decisions.
While it’s certainly a mistake to solely rely on a personality typing system to write your characters for you, having your characters’ personality types in your back pocket can be extremely useful when you get stuck. One of the most commonly used systems is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or the MBTI, a system made up of sixteen personality types, each type represented by a set of four letters. A fuller explanation, as well as a free test that you could run your characters through, can be found at the 16 Personalities website.
Let’s take a quick look at an example of how this can be used. Frodo Baggins, the main character of The Lord of the Rings, is commonly believed to be an INFP personality type.
There is a moment in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo offers during the Council of Elrond to carry the Ring to Mordor, even though he is probably the least qualified person at the Council to do so. What can his personality type tell us about why he made this decision?
Well, the “F” in “INFP” stands for “Feeling,” which means that Frodo tends to make decisions based off of his emotions, rather than logic. During the scene in question, everyone is bickering about who should be the one to take the Ring, and Frodo recognizes that it is the Ring that is causing this discord among them, and had felt previously the effect it was having on him. He offers to take the Ring because he understands that it has to be done, but furthermore, because he feels that it is the right thing to do.
If Frodo was a “T” type, a “Thinking” type, rather than a Feeling type, this is likely not the decision he would have made. If Frodo made his decisions based on logic, he would have reasoned that he had no combat or survival skills that would qualify him as the ideal Ring-Bearer, and would come to the conclusion that it was best left in the hands of someone else–and thus, Middle-Earth would have been doomed.
Hopefully you found some of these tips helpful–happy writing!