How to Make Ordinary Characters Compelling
First, remember that fascinating doesn’t necessarily mean unusual. Regular people can end up on the fascinating end of the scale. Cinderella and Aladdin start out as perfectly ordinary people, but their stories have lasted for generations. Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals relies on Glenda, a relentlessly ordinary baker. The people who buy the country home in Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale are a perfectly ordinary blended family. Charlie Asher of Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job is dreadfully ordinary. It’s part of the point of his character.
To craft fascinating characters, you have to know them inside and out, and know them so deeply that you know what motivates them—what causes them to act. Here’s how to do just that.
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Step 1: Know Your Character’s History
You need to develop your protagonist fully and completely. On one level, this means she should have a totally documented life, from birth to present. As the author, you should know nearly everything about her before you even begin: where she was born, where she went to school, the first time she fell in love, and more. I say nearly because more ideas and possibilities will crop up as you write the story. Old lovers, photographs from long-ago vacations and other detritus from the past can show up at any time to create conflict—or help the character in a moment of crisis.
Step 2: Go Beyond the Basic Facts
While those kinds of background details are important, remember that they’re merely facts. You also need to develop the character’s attitudes. Consider this: Two kids survive Mrs. Futz’s awful third-grade class. One shrugs the whole thing off, and the other comes away hating school for the rest of his life. Which attitude would your main character have?
Glenda from Unseen Academicals leads an ordinary life doing an ordinary job. A homely, slightly overweight young woman, she runs the night kitchen at a university, reads piles of romance novels when no one’s looking, and still has a teddy bear named Mr. Wobble. Except for the teddy, there’s nothing extraordinary, or even interesting, about her. Pratchett makes her interesting through her attitudes. Glenda is eminently practical. She runs the night kitchen with an iron fist because she knows in her heart there is one right way to make pies, and that’s how it shall be done.
Step 3: Endear Your Characters to the Reader
Glenda’s practicality extends to keeping a close eye on her assistant, Juliet, who is beautiful and therefore not quite trustworthy, in Glenda’s estimation. Glenda also sees to it that the elderly people in her neighborhood are checked on, fed and aired out from time to time because someone has to do it, and if she doesn’t, who will? All this endears her to the reader and makes her interesting to read about long before a hungry goblin shows up in her kitchen and things get a little strange. No matter what you’re writing or who your characters are, use this strategy to help readers connect with them.
Step 4: Dig Even Deeper to Uncover Motivations
Your own characters need to have the same sort of depth as Glenda. This extends beyond work and hobbies. How does your main character see the world? What does she expect when something good happens? When something bad happens? How does she react to a challenge? To a loss? How does she fit into her neighborhood or other community? Knowing all this and more will allow you to write a three-dimensional character who will draw readers in.
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Take some time right now to look at the worksheet on the next page. Fill it out. You don’t need to know everything on it, but you should be aware of most of it.
It might not seem like it now, but chances are good that every bit of this brainstorming and research will make it into the book. Your character may never mention that her parents divorced messily when she was 8 and that her mother dated a string of men thereafter, leaving her with a subconscious uncertainty about relationships. But you will know, and this knowledge will tell you exactly what to do when Victor Vampire sweeps into Norma Normal’s life, all handsome and delicious—and completely transient, from her perspective. Norma herself may not be aware why she keeps breaking it off with Victor even when it’s clear she loves him, but you, the author, have worked it all out. Her reactions will come across as more consistent, and therefore much more realistic.
The most fully developed, deeply motivated characters are always the most compelling, no matter how ordinary they might be. So flesh them out now, and your readers will thank you later.