Science fiction and fantasy are built on cool ideas and fascinating worlds — but those things are only as good as the people who live around and inside them. How do you create compelling fictional characters? It's a huge challenge. But here are some tips that might make it easier.
There's no silver bullet or easy formula for creating characters who live and breathe inside your head (and hopefully other people's heads, too). If there were, we'd all be using it and it wouldn't be such a nightmare. I struggle with this all the time — I'll have a story reach an eighth or ninth draft before I realize that a major character is still basically a scrap of paper, carried along through the story on the wind. And after years of grappling with this issue, I've come up with some things can help me to imagine the character as a real, separate individual instead of a function of the plot or story.
Note: this essay is adapted from a mini-lecture I gave at Clarion West a couple weeks ago. Thanks to everyone there who asked questions and gave feedback on it. (And this is a good place to plug Clarion West, which is an amazing writing program that you should all support and apply to. I had such an incredible experience there, and felt privileged to hang out with the next generation of mind-blowing SF writers.)
So here are some ideas and tips that might make your characters come to life more easily:
This is the maxim that I've basically tried to live by for the past few years, and I kind of want to get it made into a banner that I can hang over my computer. Your characters can be witty and spout interesting philosophies, and have cool names and awesome fashion sense — but in the end, they are what they do. We judge people by their actions (with the caveat that speech can be an action, too.) So when you're coming up with characters to populate your world, don't think of types of people or cool ideas — try to think in terms of people who do stuff. And if your characters are just sitting around spouting witty one-liners for page after page, but not getting off their butts and doing something, then they're probably not such interesting characters after all. (And yes, even if you're writing a drawing-room novel in which conversation is the main event, that conversation should still involve people interacting in ways that move the story forward.)
And following on from that — the most compelling characters are often the ones who do something unexpected. And when you first create a character, you need a "hook" to get yourself interested in them — because a lot of creating a character is actually making yourself curious about him/her. You, the writer, have to want to know more about this person, and then you can make your reader want to know more, too. So one way to do that is to imagine a character who does something completely wild and goes off the map, something that nobody else would ever do. And then try to imagine what would motivate someone to behave that way, and what sort of person does that sort of thing.
Again, a lot of inventing people, and having them take on a life of their own, is making yourself curious about them. And one thing that can make you wonder about someone is their personal contradictions — in real life, as well as fiction. When you meet a Vegan who wears leather, you want to know more about why they refuse to eat animal products but they wear animal skins. Or if you meet a Buddhist sadist, that's automatically fascinating. Those are somewhat extreme examples, but everybody has contradictions between their beliefs and actions, or between two different ideas they subscribe to.
If it's a vivid enough detail. Especially for a supporting character, a single striking detail (like a jewel that this person wears, or an odd habit they have) can make them stick in your mind. But even for your main character, a single interesting detail about her or his appearance, or a habit of speech (a catch-phrase?) can make them a lot more vivid to you. In a lot of ways, this is like trying to remember someone you used to know years ago — anything that brings them into focus in your head is helpful.
When I was starting out as a fiction writer, I was in a workshop where someone handed out "character creation sheets" they'd printed out from somewhere. These weren't like D&D character sheets — there was no space for alignment or dexterity or whatever — but instead were just accumulations of details that would hopefully add up to a three-dimensional character. Favorite color, childhood pet, favorite music, etc. The one time I tried to fill out that sheet for a character, I lost interest in her before I got halfway through. It was too much clutter, and made me get bogged down in trying to invent stuff that I wasn't that interested in. On the other hand, one trick I've found really useful is to go back, in the ninth or tenth draft, and seed in more stuff like the character's taste in music, eating habits, taste in decorations — once the character is already living and breathing and the story is already written and polished, I often find adding stuff like that in just adds an extra layer of realness to the whole thing.
So you've already done some gangbuster worldbuilding, and created a setting that's a living, breathing place — and now the temptation is to fill it with people who fit perfectly with it. After all, the world is so fascinating, your characters should be an extension of it, right? Maybe not. Oftentimes, the most interesting character is the one who sticks out from the world, or is at right-angles to it. In a world of cloud-herders, write about the person who's allergic to vapor. Your protagonist doesn't have to be a social outcast, or someone who defies the society's norms and values — although that sure doesn't hurt — but writing about someone who has a unique relationship to your world is a good way to create fictional people with some life to them.
Capturing emotion on the page can be really hard. There's an element of acting in writing — you have to "hear" your characters in your head, but you also have to "portray" what they're thinking and feeling. Sometimes, it's actually helpful to act out the scene (in the privacy of your own home) until it feels natural and true. But most writers are not great actors, and accessing emotions on command can be a nearly impossible task. Which is why anger is a godsend — everybody can get angry, and everybody has things that inspire anger pretty easily. And anger is a powerful emotion that can motivate your characters to do a lot of things. But also, anger can transform into other emotions really easily. Yoda was wrong: Anger leads to protectiveness. Anger leads to joy. Anger leads to forgiveness. Anger can easily turn into humor, in fact. If you can get in touch with your anger, you can find the ways that it turns into other strong emotions.
As a general rule, an interesting character is someone who wants something — people who don't want anything tend to be apathetic, and it's a lot harder to make audiences interested in an apathetic character. (It's totally doable, but at least be consciously aware that you're doing that, and try to make it work.) But what your character wants doesn't need to be the main point of the story — if your story is about someone being attacked by giant carnivorous mushrooms, your main character may want something more than just to avoid being eaten. Maybe your character is trying to make it to her wedding on time, and the giant mushrooms are just preventing her from getting to the church on time. That's a crude example — but if your story is about accomplishing one particular task, consider having your protagonist want something separate from that task. This will make him/her stand out and feel less like a walking plot device.
Not just where your character comes from, or who they used to be — but an actual story. It doesn't have to be more than a paragraph or two. Write the story of how your main character dropped out of high school, ten years before your story begins. Or the tale of how your protagonist first realized they were different. Sometimes writing a brief, snappy tale of how the character learned something or dealt with something, that turned them into the person they were at the start of your story, can give you a powerful little nugget to keep in your back pocket. I almost never include these "origin stories" in the actual finished story, but they help me see who this person is now, by imagining how they got here.
This sort of relates to point #8. If your character is going from A to B to C, following the exact steps they need to take to get through the plot you've laid out for them, then they're probably not actually having a life of their own. Your character should wander off the path — and pay attention to points where a real person wouldn't necessarily just walk straight into danger, or make the decision that will move the plot forward. Often times, when your plot is going too smoothly, it's not just because you haven't introduced enough complications — it's also because your characters aren't really making their own decisions. Real people will have their own agendas and qualms, and they won't just go where you need them to go. (And then, once your characters have completely screwed up the nice path you laid out for them, that's when your worldbuilding kicks in and prevents them from just doing whatever they feel like.)