Updated: Sep 11
Start with real life: and build character into your writing
Use who you know personally or a TV/Film character as the base for character traits or even physical resemblance
It could be the easiest 'crib-sheet' to start you off building a character - even if he/she becomes a composite of several people who really exist.
(But make sure you don't give them the same name or make it too obvious the person upon which they are based - just to avoid embarrassment either way.)
Describe what you like/dislike about them
This is another reason for making sure it is not obvious upon whom the character is based!
You may wish to categorize them as a 'want to be liked/disliked' feature in your story from the outset - although it is surprising how many authors begin by making you like or dislike a character then, over the course of events, make you switch your opinion of them.
This is also an opportunity for you to 'show' what the person is like, rather than 'tell', by providing examples of their character traits and personality, rather than merely saying they are 'angry' or 'sad', 'happy' or 'kind' etc.
(Consider this: if someone relates a story about a person saving a swimmer from drowning, that impression of them (courageous) stays with you more so than if you were to simply describe them as 'brave', without proof.)
What is their MAIN characteristic?
Describe main features - beauty-kind-cruel-aloof-friendly etc - and develop that by 'show and tell'
How does the reader connect with (care about) them?
We have already talked about the ability to like/dislike characters. This is similar, but focuses on how strongly we empathize with their actions or what happens to them.
How do you build an emotional attachment in your reader, for the character? Vulnerability springs to mind as one trait. Even weakness (although they say nobody likes a 'loser'.)
Strength of character and a sense of justice strike positive chords in most people (even though each person's idea of some of these values may differ from one reader to another).
Build characters you would want to know/or want to avoid
This is especially important if you are developing a series - e.g. crime series - hinged on particular characters (e.g. Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Moriarty).
But even in 'one'offs', if you establish this tension early on in the book, it encourages people to read on if they have 'invested' in the characters.
Create people for whom a single event (tragic or fortunate) has shaped their lives
This opens up great opportunities for using 'back stories' and 'show versus tell' technique for describing how and why a character behaves as they do.
It overcomes dullness and - guess what - lack of character. It also provides the reader with an insight which may match their own experiences, creating a bond between reader and 'hero/heroine'.
Introduce faults to characters/weaknesses
People are not perfect. Perfection can lead to blandness - then unreality - and finally, disinterest in a character.
Nobody is perfect; the reader does not expect it; so give the reader what they want - imperfection - which makes characters believable and real and, therefore, how readers connect with characters.
How readers connect with characters if your writing lacks character
Unless the reader 'accepts' your character as being believable, they are unlikely to 'care' about them. How do we enable readers to identify with characters?
You need to be carried along with a character so that 'when they win, you win' or 'when they cry, you cry'
If you can achieve this, you will have won over your reader, but it will only work if your reader 'shares' the experience of characters who are important to the essence of the story (as in requited love; justice versus wrong-doing; overcoming illness or misfortune, and so on).
Physical description can be basic - leaving detail out
Allow readers to inject their own idea of what is beautiful etc.
For those reasons don't be too concerned about describing characters in intimate detail. To an extent we invent our own archetypes, so a grumpy old war veteran may be all you need to describe someone.
We may each have had quite different experiences with grumpiness, age, and ex-servicemen, and so be capable of building our own visual image.
Not all characters in your books need a 'character' (!)
Unless a character plays an important part, don't develop full personalities for every one who appears in your story.
Some (e.g. the hotel porter) may not even need a name. Instead, focus on main characters as the main interest within the story.
If your writing lacks character the above are just a few suggestions you may consider in order to improve your writing technique - but there is more on other aspects in my 'how to write' blog posts.