Trust your reader. This should be a sign hanging somewhere near your writing station, next to one that says “I am a writer” because they’re both important. There are many aspects of writing where trust should be applied, but today we’re going to focus on one in particular.
When it comes to the characters in your stories, trust is vital. That includes deliberately not spelling out everything in detail, which is the best approach in most cases. Saying “Cindy frowned” prompts readers to suss out whether Cindy frowns a little or a lot. Their answer will depend on both the contents of the scene and her depicted behavior throughout the story. By not including any other details, it gives the audience permission to use their own judgment as to what is an appropriate amount of frowning. For instance, if a character is frustrated, their frown will look one way and if they are angry it will look another. You want your reader to fill in those blanks because too much description – like “Cindy’s frown arched her brows down to nearly point toward the tip of her nose” – might actually make them confused about whether or not they were interpreting the frown correctly.
Another aspect where less detail is better comes into play about a character’s physical appearance. The audience doesn’t need their exact height, weight, or body measurements, for instance. You should, however, include a few key physical details to help the reader develop a mental picture. It will help guide them to what distinguishes your characters from each other. Identifying characteristics that affect more than just how the reader views a character are always a plus – as in, the detail would affect how other characters treat them. If Cindy is five-foot-four, for example, she will be perceived as short and possibly child-like regardless of her age. Saying her precise height can be avoided, too, by adding in supplemental descriptions such as a well-used step-stool in her kitchen and having consistent – but not over-repeated – mentions of her looking up at other characters who are taller than she is. Even if a reader imagines Cindy as five-foot-two rather than five-four, there is no real harm to how she fits into the story.
Personality traits are the last part of this list regarding “less is more”. Be ruthless when evaluating keeping descriptions like “annoying”, “manic”, “mean”, etc. There are exceptions, like having your protagonist introduce someone as “annoying” knowing that later there will be a redemptive arc leading to them becoming friends – but you should generally avoid this manner of labeling. Character personalities are better established through dialogue and actions. Both will convey what type of person they are, and readers will have their own ideas about what constitutes “annoying” versus “quirky” or even “obnoxious”.
All in all, you should avoid details that lock your readers into a description that might mean something different to you than it does to them. It’s almost always preferable to give the audience a chance to form their own opinions about your story’s characters.
Two things about character names
1 – Unless you have a sound narrative reason, do your best to avoid writing characters in the same story with the same first letter in their names. It’s a known language interpretation skill that many people only truly distinguish the first and last letters of words when they read, which means that having the same first letter increases the likelihood that your audience will think Pamela is at the ball while Paula is locked in her room, which would make it very confusing when the Prince shows up later for Paula.
Also, it’s a good idea to make sure their name fits the era in which your story takes place. The U.S. government name list is a handy tool, or you can search online for popular names if your story features characters from other countries.
2 – Examine every character in your story – yes, all of them. After you give them a look-over, identify at least one goal that they have. Preferably, it should have something (even indirectly or thematically) to do with the core plot of the story. This is important because everyone wants something, and your characters are no exception. Conflict in your story will come from characters who have goals that are in opposition. For instance, your protagonist wants something, your antagonist usually wants something in direct opposition. They will work against each other as each attempts to achieve their goal.
Not every character has to have a character arc (although they should have goals). Major characters and the protagonist will likely develop a character arc, but it’s your job as the writer to evaluate their arcs for relevance to the story.
There are 3 major versions of a character arc
Change Arc / Positive Arc
This is your typical hero’s journey. The protagonist starts out as an unlikely force but by the end of the story they have found an inner strength and become the hero. Changes within the protagonist are often drastic, but at the very least they are notable. It’s the idea of inner strength that often keeps them connected to the person they were at the beginning of the story.
The Hunger Games’ protagonist Katniss Everdeen is a prime example of a growth arc. Her convictions about the failings of her world’s laws are consistent from start to finish, but in the course of the story she is challenged and forced far outside her comfort zone. By the end, she knows she is not the same person as the one who went into the games.
Growth Arc / Flat Arc
Stories with growth arcs feature characters who don’t change much over the course of the story. Internally, though, there will be some sort of challenge for them to overcome. By the end of the story, the protagonist will be themselves, probably with fewer flaws or a more determined grasp of their own world view. The world around them provides most of the conflict, often by challenging the protagonist in their determination of already being a best version of themselves.
Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is confident of himself and his worldview throughout the movie. Even when his conviction pits him against the abused, vicious, brainwashed version of his only childhood friend, he holds firm that The Mission comes first. (We can see in CA: Civil War that he was conflicted over the cost of his convictions when Rumlow mentions Bucky in a successful effort to distract Cap from noticing a bomb, but the flat arc in CA:TWS is solid.)
Fall Arc / Negative Arc
The tragedy. For all the protagonist’s good intentions, they are on the wrong path. Either they will ultimately fail to achieve their story goal, or the goal itself will cost the something dear. Failure doesn’t always guarantee that the antagonist wins, but you can bet that the protagonist will have no small amount of guilt and regret from their actions over the course of the story.
Peter Dawes’ Deathspell series features a flawed protagonist. They do in fact achieve their goal in book one, but never quite believed they were in over their head until it was too late. The book ends in a tragedy, with the protagonist facing the consequences of pursuing their goal and leading to a whole other set of problems explored in book two.
Compelling and interesting characters are necessary to keep readers turning pages. They bridge gaps, turn audience members into fans, and overall are a key reason your readers will recommend your book to their friends. Building characters that hold an audience’s interest – from your protagonist down to the plucky side-kick – should be done with equal measures of craft, creativity, and cultivation. Let them tell you who they are, and you can tell them who they should be. By the end of a story, you’ll know who they need to be to keep your readers’ coming back for more.
Who is your favorite character, or is it impossible to pick? Have you ever given or received a recommendation for a book based solely on a character or characters? What type of character arcs appear the most often in your preferred books, movies, and television shows? Have you ever been surprised about liking a character you didn’t expect to? The comments are always open.