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Before anything, please pardon any grammar (or other kinds of language) mistakes I might make, for English is not my mother language.

I'm making a fictional world, medieval-like with a wide variety of different kinds of magic.

So far, my main character has three companions which accompany him in his quest.

These characters' personalities differ vastly from one another, but I have been unable to truly establish that trait... that "thing" which makes a character memorable. Every time I re-read my story, they just feel like I was defining them, instead of them defining themselves.

How can I make it so they really feel like well-defined characters? What things should I keep in mind while writing?

  • 3
    This is a great first question! welcome to Writers SE! – ggiaquin16 Jul 17 '17 at 21:50
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    Welcome to Writers dsc! I've edited your question a bit to improve the English, but please feel free to rollback or change the edits if you feel I missed the point of what you were saying. – Thomas Myron Jul 17 '17 at 22:16
  • How does the accepted answer answers your question? It is basically the everlasting "Show don't tell" advice... If this is truly the answer that best suits your need, then you should rewrite your question, because this is hardly a character-developpement matter. – Patsuan Jul 20 '17 at 9:17
  • Yeah, I think the question could be rewritten to be more clear. My answer was in response to "These characters' personalities differ vastly from one another" (implying that the character traits are already determined) and "What things should I keep in mind while writing?" (which sounds like a question about how to convey traits on the page). – Ken Mohnkern Jul 21 '17 at 13:24
  • Have a hook/a memorable character trait: Pennywise: kills childer and makes hilarious jokes. Anakin: doesn't like sand. /k/ommando: tests out gas mask by flooding his bathroom with chlorine gas, little did he know about that it will also burn his skin. – Mephistopheles Oct 18 '17 at 17:25
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There are two parts of character development: the part which builds characters to tell your story, and the part which defines who those characters are/what they are like. I always start with the first part, and get my characters from that. However, your question is dealing with the second part of character development, so I will address that.

Knowing the Character

The first step in developing any character is knowing who they are, and why they exist in your story. First, ask yourself how important the character is. Is he the main character? A secondary protagonist? A side character? A mere passing acquaintance? Knowing the answer to these questions will help you gauge how important your character is to your story. Only the important characters need serious development; those below them need only a basic direction, and those characters which we see only for a chapter or two need very little development indeed. That being said, it is best to err on the side of too much development, rather than too little. Know the importance of your characters, and how much development they need.

The next question you must ask yourself is, 'what is this character's role in the story?' Why are they in it? Could the story be told just as well without them? If so, that's a hint that they have no role whatsoever, and should likely be removed from the tale completely.

The main character is there to show the reader the story. The side characters are there to support the main character, do things he cannot, or sometimes provide contrast or support to the main messages of the tale, if you have them. Passing characters are there to move the plot along, doing necessary things.

Knowing the role of the character will give you a big hint as to what you need that character to do. You know the reader needs to like the main character, so he should therefore have a trait that the reader can get behind. You also know he's the kind of person who goes on an adventure to (insert goal here). What does that say about who he is?

You know side character A needs to provide hope to the main character at a critical time during your plot, so she should have a personality which will allow for that. She likely shouldn't be a pessimist, for example. She probably doesn't give up easily.

The character who sells your protagonist horses for the journey, however, likely doesn't need much in the way of development, as we'll only see him in a few scenes. Maybe he's a horse-lover. Maybe he likes peace and quiet, and is surly towards your companions. A handful of basic traits is all you really need to make passing characters seem life-like.

Drawing Conclusions

The above should help you to get a basic idea of what kind of people your characters are. That step is very important. It creates the base from which you can explore your characters further.

I like to write down all of the traits for my characters, sorted by person. I then look at one character's traits, and think about what that says about the person. If I know that character B likes hunting, is a renowned runner, and has explored the village river back home, I can conclude that this person might be adventurous. Maybe he likes the outdoors. From that, I can further speculate that he might not like being inside. Maybe he's claustrophobic. (Ah! A fear - well-developed characters aren't all smiles and sunshine.)

On the other hand, if I know that character C eventually betrays the hero, and does this for money, that says a lot about that person. Why would she betray her friend for money? Does money perhaps mean more to her than friendship? Was she perhaps betrayed herself by her 'friends' at an early age? Continue speculating, and you'll soon have a rich list of traits.

The Stat Sheet

You also of course need to know what your character looks like and how they act. What they look like is entirely up to you, but try to avoid going down the path of assigning 'quirks' to each of your characters simply to tell them apart. If you know your characters as 'the one with the scar,' 'the one with a limp,' and 'the one with white hair,' then you have a problem. Those aren't character traits. They are crutches. Only assign your characters such physical marks if they aid the story.

A better question to ask yourself is how your characters act. You now know their traits, so how do they interact with other people? If you're unsure, try this exercise: write a short piece about your character in a room with another basic character. This basic character has only the most rudimentary of traits - he's only there for your character to react to. Have the characters ask each other questions, pose riddles, try to escape the room, anything which seems natural. Doing this exercise can often reveal things about your characters you didn't know. You can keep the piece of writing when you are done or throw it out; it's served its purpose.

Once you know how your character view and interact with others, it's time to ask yourself how they view and interact with themselves. We all discuss things over with ourselves. We all have our own images of ourselves (which may or may not be entirely accurate).

What does you character think of himself? Is his opinion better or worse than he actually is? Why? Is he spot on? What made him come to such an accurate conclusion?

Something else to consider is fantasies. We all have dreams which we would tell no one else. Your characters should be no exception. You know their traits, you know who they are - what would their deepest desires be? What about their greatest fears? What are the secrets they would never divulge, and why?

Avoiding Cliches

Answering these questions will help you turn your basic characters into fleshed out creations which feel authentic to readers. The more time you invest in a character, the more real they will seem. There's no magic formula to make a character seem real. You just have to work at it, and put a lot of time into it.

One thing you should not do, however, is fall back on cliches. Cliches aren't all bad - after all, they are popular because they get the job done - but they have been used so much that they now feel stale and contrived. If, at any point, you find yourself thinking that you have seen the character you are creating somewhere else, in a book you read or a movie you saw, STOP IMMEDIATELY. An overused character cliche might have found its way into your writing (this also might not be the case; be sure). A problem I find that I have is that I will assume one trait means another, when in fact it is simply a well-established cliche which my mind automatically leapt to. Watch out for that.

Strive to be original. If you are creating an elf, don't assume that he has to be slightly taller than a human, fair-skinned, pointy-eared, strong, and capable of wielding magic. Make him face plant now and then. Have him miss the point of a joke. Have him develop a cold. And perhaps most importantly, make him be the worst shot with a bow in all the land. That will make for an original elf.

Conclusion/tl;dr

So, how can you make well-defined characters? Time and effort. Know what role your characters play in the story, and why they are there. Know how important they are, from protagonist to a stable boy mentioned for two sentences.

Define what they do, and what those actions say about who they are. Get a basic feel for what kind of person they are. From there, speculate. What does this base say about them? What can you assume about this character? What can you assume this character is not like?

Determine their appearance, actions, interactions, and internal thoughts. Thoroughly explore them. They might not know exactly who they are, but you do. If you know them, it will come across in your writing. When you write, you won't be writing characters in a book.

You'll be writing real people.

Best of luck!

  • 1
    Great answer! Here's what I recently tried to refine the inter-character relationships: I have a story with about a dozen more or less important characters that I feel I should know. I created a table and for each relationship sketched in a sentence or two how that looked. The important part was not to assume that the relationship Tim-John must be equal to John-Tim. Tim might like John, but John might find Tim tedious. I did this for all constellations of my characters and found that not only an immensely fun thing to do, but also very, very illuminating. – Filip Jul 20 '17 at 9:05
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    The most important aspect, for me, were the relationships that were unrelated to my main character. Exploring how all the secondary characters interacted with each other gave additional depth to my story. Although I'm sure not all of these relationships will feature in the finished novel, they still slumber in the back of my head. I can't exactly tell you why, but that's a reassuring feeling. – Filip Jul 20 '17 at 9:10
  • Insightful answer. I'd like to bring up 2 points. 1 : I find you disproportinately harsh about clichés. It's important not to confuse clichés with tropes. Everyone uses tropes and your character ressembling another one you've already seen is bound to happen. It can become a cliché when the trope is so poorly used and underdevelopped that it becomes boring and you find it hard not to eyes roll at such amateurism. Also trying to desperately make an elf (I'm taking your example) original can lead to a cliché, or at least boring, character aswell. – Patsuan Jul 20 '17 at 9:41
  • 2 : Your 'Stat Sheet' makes me think of a habit of mine. I'm into tabletop roleplaying games and one thing I like to do is picking a game in which there are character traits and seeing how my character could be created within the rules of the game. These rules always have a limit to the number of traits you can pick, so this helps me determining which traits are truly defining my characters or asking myself if they have too much or too few. I also like to ask myself "If my character was born in this game's world, what would they strive for? What kind of powers/competences would they have?" etc – Patsuan Jul 20 '17 at 10:00
  • @Patsuan I honestly didn't know there was a difference between tropes and cliches. That is useful. About writing a character you've seen somewhere else; I believe I was talking about the likelihood of overused character cliches finding their ways into your writing. I will edit my answer to clarify. – Thomas Myron Jul 20 '17 at 16:40
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Characters are usually memorable due to personality traits. If we think back to all of our favorite characters as we grew up, you may even notice a pattern of characters you liked in comparison with their similar traits. For me, I always liked leader characters. Tommy from Rugrats, Leonardo from Ninja Turtles, Aragorn from Lord of the Rings and so on. You notice that all of MY personal favorite characters that are memorable have similar personality traits.

What makes a character memorable is how easily someone can relate to this character, whether by similar life stories or by personality traits (whether they are common or traits wished to have). The hard part about memorable characters is that, not everyone is going to remember a character the way you want. You might remember a character for their heroic deeds or the way their family interacted reminded you of home, where as I might remember a character because they shared the same life story and struggles.

If you are looking to make them stand out, give each one of them a quirk. Maybe 1 of your characters doesn't take the adventure as seriously and is the "comedy relief". He would be memorable for his quick 1 liners at the right time. Maybe the other guy does a feat during the peak of the story which pulls on the emotional strings.

Ultimately, you want to make each character well rounded and have a good deep development. If all we knew of Aragorn is that he was some guy who lived in the woods, fought, and then became king, his character would be fairly dull. By adding in background information, mystery, and character development even within the story, his character then becomes more in depth, more relatable, and in turn more memorable.

Think about some of the adventure stories, The Hobit, Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Game of Thrones. What makes characters stand out to you? Especially in a story like GoT where there are so many characters, what makes one stand out over another? Most of the time the bottom line of this is emotional appeal. That is how well someone can relate to that character either positively or negatively. We hated Joffrey because he reminded us of the spoiled little brat that lived down the street from us as a kid. We love Daenerys because she has a strong, motherly vibe to her and she's awesome.

So think about your target audience, think about the characters and their personalities. You said that they are each already significantly different from each other. They may already be memorable but because you have spent so much time working with them, they don't feel "unique" to you. My suggestion would be to give it to someone with fresh eyes and preferably void of any or most knowledge of your story. Let them experience it just like someone who were to pick up your book from the shelf without knowing anything about the book. See what they say and feel about the character development after they are done. Hopefully they give you a good honest opinion.

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"...they just feel like I was defining them, instead of them defining themselves."

It sounds like you know who your characters are, and what their traits are, which is a pretty big accomplishment. I think you're asking how to express those traits on the page.

Do it through their behavior. Of course, everyone writes differently, but I prefer writing that focuses on actions rather than descriptions and explanations. When you meet Olga, you get a sense of who she is from her actions: the way she shakes your hand and sits and fidgets and the words she uses. When you see her the second time you learn more from her excuse when she shows up late and the way she speaks to the waiter. And after some weeks she tells you a secret. What it is and how she chooses to reveal it tell you a lot about who she is.

These are all actions (verbs), not descriptions (adjectives).

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In a nutshell, the answer is, humanity. A more human character is more memorable. The great authors are those who seem to have the greatest insight into what it means to be human. I don't think that comes from anything one could reasonably describe as technique, it is more a matter of careful observation and reflection on human experience and behavior.

But I do think there is one very basic thing you can do to make your characters more human, and that is to approach your story character-first. Look at it this way: if you are interviewing candidates for a job, you make your decision based primarily on their ability to perform certain roles. To a greater or lesser extent you may also look at their ability to fit into the team, but it is their ability to fill a role that is paramount. Personality is second. And in many cases, you would actually prefer a little less personality in your employees. It would let you get the work done faster.

But this is not how you choose your friends. You choose your friends based on their personalities and interests. You are much less likely to choose a new friend based on their ability to play a role in your social circle. You make friends with them because you like hanging out with them. When you plan an activity for the group, you choose the activity based on what your friends would find fun, interesting, or challenging. Character drives action.

Introducing a character into a novel is very like this. If you plot driven, you are hiring a character to fill a role, to do a job. Subconsciously, at least, you don't want them to have a character beyond that required to play their assigned part in the plot. If you are character driven, you are writing about a character because you are interested in them. You then design your plot to challenge that character.

Plot and character can often conflict. Your preconceived plot requires your MC to take the low road, but everything you have established about your MC to this point says they would take the high road. The reader knows that they would take the high road, and so when they take the low road, they feel the inconsistency (even if they can't identify it) and the characters becomes more of a plot worker rather than a person.

There will always be characters in your books that are plot workers. They exist to fulfill a role. Most of them can be given a character that is consistent with the plot work they have to do because they will not be around long enough for any inconsistencies between character and action to become apparent. Often you need plot worker characters in order to change the circumstances for your MC so that they end up taking the low road even though they would normally take the high road. Thus plot worker characters allow you to preserve the humanity of your fully human characters.

This to me is what great plotting is really all about. It is not about designing an exciting sequence of events on paper. In fact, reading the Wikipedia plot story of some of the great works of literature often makes them sound contrived and chaotic. But they do not seem so at all in the books. I believe the reason for this is that what makes a plot seem improbable is never improbable or convoluted events, but characters behaving out of character. A great plotter is someone who can create a great character and can then manipulate events (using plot worker characters if necessary) to bring that character to their personal Waterloo.

So, it sound like what you have now are one MC and three plot worker characters. The problem is, they are companions on a quest and so they are around for the whole story, and that is far too much page time for a plot worker character. So you need to make them real people and then deal with the fact that this will probably make some of your current plot untenable. But the great advantage of a quest is that your characters keep moving, which means you can introduce them to new plot worker characters along the way in order to push the direction of the plot back on track. But you need to design these incidents to make sure that all of your fully human characters and engaged and that their engagements all lead them in the same direction despite their differences of character. Sometimes this will mean you need a different plot worker character for each MC at a particular plot point.

  • Of course, if your characters is Napoleon or the Duke of Wellington depends on the story you're telling. – Michael Jul 19 '17 at 19:42
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You said:

Every time I re-read my story, they just feel like I was defining them, instead of them defining themselves.

I believe you are picking up cues that you are telling and not showing.

Show, Don't Tell -- It's Not Just A Cliche

Think about the way you learn about people in real life.

More often than not, you learn by watching their behaviors, not because those people you meet in life run up to you and say,

"I'm an annoying jerk and you will probably think I'm stupid and want to get away from me in only a few minutes. Plus I only brush my teeth once a week."

Instead, you see and experience the actions people take.

You are at the grocery store and a middle-aged blonde cuts you off and jumps in front of you in line. Then she turns, moves in too close to you and the fumes of her foul breath blow directly into your face and she says, "Oh I didn't see you there. Sorry. I'm in a hurry."

She does not have to tell you that she is rude and has bad breath from not brushing her teeth. You know it. You've just learned about her by her actions. That is what you need with your characters. You need actions that define them.

If you are showing your characters in various situations those actions will appear naturally and your characters will come to life.

However, if your characters are sitting around talking to each other and doing nothing, you'll find it much more difficult not to fall into the trap of "telling" your readers what your characters are like.

See It On The Movie-Screen of Your Mind

Many writers do not know that you need to see the scene play out first. Then you can write it down. Many writers think they'll just sit down and write a story and then they end up telling a story that does very little showing.

Try seeing a particular scene play out on the movie-screen of your mind. Imagine your character so vividly that you can see her. Now, what does she do? Let's say she is struggling to give her dog a bath.

Does the character pick up the leash and beat the dog with it? Or does she gently put her arms around the dog, pick it up and place it in the tub?
The difference is the characterization you are looking for.

Once you see it, then write it down just as you see it happening. But, do not write it down before you see it otherwise you will often tell the reader what happened and use weak description like:

She got mad at the dog.

or

She was a gentle with the dog.

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Short Answer: subvert a stereotype.

Long Answer

Let's start with what makes a character forgettable. In the most basic sense, a character is a puppet, an entity that does whatever you want. If the hero must slay a dragon, you need someone with the strength or skill to complete that task. How about a knight? Everybody knows knights are brave and strong, well armed and armored.

That covers your plot. Noble knight learns about nasty dragon, knight finds dragon, knight slays dragon, The End.

Now that the story's over, what do we know about the knight? What everybody knows about knights. A stereotype. Forgettable.

To make a story more interesting, you put obstacles in front of your protagonist. Some are exterior. The knight might need to cross a bridge and finds it washed away. Other obstacles are interior. The knight may have a phobia of lizards. That is a character trait.

A character trait is anything that makes the character unique and thus memorable. It may be a weakness that affects his ability to reach his goal. A weakness can also affect other areas of life, for instance, a speech impediment. Other characters may learn about the weakness and attempt to exploit it.

Some traits are exceptional qualities. The knight may be short, or bald, or missing a limb.

Some traits are humanizing. The knight may want to be a monk instead of a warrior. We all have dreams, even if we must give up on them at some point.

Some traits are situational. The knight is chronically short of funds, so he has to find or make a good lance.

Some traits are cognitive, that is, based on something the character believes (rightly or wrongly). The knight meets the dragon and is surprised to learn that they share an interest in poetry.

Each of these traits takes an element of the knight's stereotype and twists it into something else. Give each character a stereotype, so the reader knows what to expect, but change one or two elements. A variation is to give a character an outward stereotype and a different, inward stereotype that you gradually reveal.

An unforgettable character is one that seems like a real person but has one or two traits that stand out. Our brains don't have room to store everyday details, but we remember the unusual.

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A hero/heroine with three companions. The "classic" in this regard is "The Wizard of Oz" featuring Dorothy with scarecrow, the tinman, and the lion.

They represent the farm boy, the industrial worker, and the soldier, with "every woman." But aside from that, they had characteristics of the brain man, the heart man, and the warrior.

Three very different companions with three different personalities and three different walks of life.

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I, for one, have this petty thing with describing my character's personality traits to stand out more.

My main character is a teenager, so he is kind of a spaz. He gets excited over the stupidest things. (ie. a butterfly landed on his hand, the dog licked his face, the sun is out after a couple hours of rain, etc.)

His father's friend is almost the same, except for a huge detail - he is not smart. He didn't go to college like he was supposed to, and he didn't finish High school. He's street smart, not book smart, so he knows things that can help someone survive, while the logical things don't come too easily for him.

The girl that my MC lives with is super stone faced. She is hard to make laugh and she's a surgeon. Super smart, but not that wise. She doesn't understand the things that go on around her, which makes her super ignorant. (Not so blissful if you ask me).

And finally, there is the MC's dad. He's almost like the girl, but he is aware of everything around him. He is pretty much really supportive, but hard on the MC, because he cares so deeply.

THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO WRITE THESE CHARACTERS, BUT I DECIDED TO WRITE THEM LIKE THIS, BECAUSE IT DEFINES WHO THEY ARE.

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