Barney Fife. Scarlett O’Hara. Inigo Montoya. Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal Lecter. Atticus Finch. Sherlock Holmes. Elphaba. Luke Skywalker. All great characters with vibrant and memorable personalities. All a complex mix of flaws, quirks, dreams and failures.
Here’s the thing about finding characters…predictable characters are dull characters. I think most would agree that the above characters are all interesting, memorable and larger-than-life.
So what can you do when your characters seem lifeless and limp?
1. Find a trait from someone you know as a jumping-off point.
Mark Twain based his character Huckleberry Finn almost precisely on his childhood buddy Tom Blankenship.
“In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” (from Autobiography of Mark Twain)
In my last book, Hope’s Tender Touch, I was struggling to identify the personality of my heroine Faith Hathaway…that is, until I realized I have a family member whose personality is exactly like the one I visualized for Faith. She’s accident prone, a worrier with a sharp sense of humor yet is completely lovable. Whenever I faced a roadblock on how my character should react, I visualized my beloved family member and Faith’s colorful personality came to life.
2. Core wound.
Another option is to form a character around a core wound. What is the internal struggle you picture your character will have? Perhaps she is a people-pleaser because she’s longing for acceptance. Perhaps he’s a person who’s a master deceiver, all in an attempt to hide his alcoholism. Perhaps your character learned to cope with being bullied by having an outrageous sense of humor. Whatever the core wound is, identify it, research that issue and then set up circumstances against your character that conflict with his or her wound.
3. Watch people. Be actively observant.
This is more than just a mild curiosity about people. Watch. Learn. Ask yourself why people do the things they do. Observe and then ask the question, “What if?” What if the cashier at the store can’t look customers in the eye because of a past abuse? What if the old lady you see shoplifting is doing so because she longs for an odd form of excitement in her life? Pay attention to speech, mannerisms, appearance and attitudes.
4. Find a quirk.
There is nothing more memorable than a unique quirk. Willie Robertson claims his Grandmother had mental health issues and, for a time, painted anything that was square in her house the color red. Some people arrange their paper money by serial number order. Some are chronic nail biters. Others insist the food on their plate cannot touch or deal daily with odd phobias or refuse to run a vacuum.
Make a list of character quirks…you’ll be surprised how the ideas start flowing. But there is a disclaimer here: give your character a quirk but know why they have this quirk. Is it a result of something traumatic from their past? Do they just look at the world in a different way? Do they love to shock people? Whatever the reason behind their quirk, explore it and weave it into the plot.
For more ideas I highly recommend Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain. Before long, your story will be brimming with smirking Rhett Butlers, swarthy Jack Sparrows and optimistic Anne Shirleys in no time.