An engaging story is only as engaging as the characters going through the journey. Readers are investing their time (and hopefully their money), so as an author, I want them to feel as though they have a new person they can’t wait to spend their day with. Hero. Heroine. Villain. The cheeky best friend. I want my characters to feel authentic and be memorable, to last long after the story is finished. I want readers to connect with them on a deep, personal level. Having that connection pulls a reader in and keeps them there from the ‘Once upon a time,’ to the ‘Happily ever after.’
Creating lasting characters goes beyond the standard appearance, attitudes, and accents. It starts with the author knowing the characters inside out, upside-down, and backwards. An author has to know their character’s goals, motives, and fears even when the characters themselves haven’t a clue. It’s usually in those key points where readers begin to identify and connect with the character; seeing something of themselves reflected from the page and learning how those factors were influenced by a character’s backstory can help tie the reader and characters together.
The writing world has beaten the word ‘backstory’ to death with the ugly stick, but a character’s history is the foundation for how they interact with their world, and most importantly, how they approach conflict. Backstory has to exist, not in page after page of info-dumping, but peppered throughout the story in a way that will allow the reader to make their own connections.
With a character’s goals, motivations, and fears in mind consider playing a game of twenty questions AS your main protagonists. Try journaling your answers as if you were the character being interrogated or being set up for a blind date. Be sure to take note of any personality quirks, word choices, or individualized idiosyncrasies that can round out your character. Sometimes it’s those small, subtle details that can make a reader fall in love with the world you’ve created.
- What is your happiest/worst memory, and WHY?
- What is your greatest accomplishment/regret and WHY?
- What is your biggest pet peeve, and WHY?
- What is your guiltiest pleasure, and WHY?
- What is your greatest fear, and WHY?
- Where do you see yourself in twenty years, and WHY?
- You find $5,000 in the street, what do you do, and WHY?
- Who is/was the most influential person in your life, and WHY?
- Who is your biggest enemy, and WHY?
- Who is your biggest fan, and WHY?
- Regardless of pay, what would be your dream career, and WHY?
- What is your ‘go to’ quote or phrase that seems to answer everything, and WHY?
- What is your favorite film of all time, and WHY?
- Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual, and WHY?
- Who were you closest to as a child, and WHY?
- What do you find the biggest waste of time to be, and WHY?
- Do you believe in love at first sight, and WHY or WHY NOT?
- If you could meet one person, dead or alive, who would you choose, and WHY?
- If you had a theme song for your life, what would it be, and WHY?
- If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be, and WHY?
The answers to these questions provide backstory, but the most important part of the twenty questions is the why. Having a character explain the why is what really dictates how a belief or experience will affect any future goals, motives, or fears and how they deal with conflict.
Example – “No, absolutely not. Love at first site? An alien invasion is more likely. I watched my brilliant best friend who had the world set on a platter in front of her, suddenly get all tongue tied and looney over a fella she just met… and oh how she loved him and he loved her and it was all hearts, flowers and head-over-heels nonsense, and now she’s swindled broke with twins on each hip living in her granny’s apartment. You know that sayin’ – ‘Jesus take the wheel?’ – well, when you let your fickle, foolish heart take the wheel for the first time, you will find yourself lost and in a ditch somewhere with no idea how you got there.”
Given this example, this main character doesn’t just disbelieve love at first site, she is likely to have a complete distrust for romance in general. So when she’s dropped into a meet-cute with a swoony hero, the last thing she will be is bowled over by charm and a sweet smile.
Make friends or frenemies with the voices inside your head. Make it a goal to know your characters better than they know themselves. Always search for ways to get to the heart of what drives, and terrifies your characters. Give them real, human flaws and the kind of history that will connect with the readers of your genre. Readers want book boyfriends, and besties, villains we love to hate, give them characters they can’t stop thinking about because a story is only as interesting as the characters going through the journey.