I recently had a friend contact me about how to develop characters. He was worried all his characters are too much like him, and what he does to divorce them from him turns them into a farce of themselves. This is something writers struggle with, I’m sure, and character development and growth is tough. It’s not something that comes naturally to most people, and creating “real” characters is a challenge.
So how do you do it? How do you breathe in that spark of life? The first part of that is to make your characters real people. I don’t mean that in a creepy way, but give them hopes, dreams, flaws. These flaws should be real to them—just like ours are to us. My main character in my fantasy series, Archimedes, is stubborn to a fault. He’s pushy and overbearing sometimes when he wants to get his way. At the start of the books, he’s also a bit of a coward and is running away from his obligations rather than fulfilling them. He’s also loyal, honest, and kind. He really wants to do the right thing, but he’s having trouble making it happen.
Regardless of whether your characters are in an alien world or a mundane one, fantasy or reality, they need to be relatable. They will contain archetypes that humanity posses. There are many theories of archetypes out there floating around in the study of psychology (which I recommend researching, by the way—it’s going to help you create more believable characters), but I tend to lean toward using the Jungian archetypes when writing if I need to categorize my characters. You can start with these archetypes because they are based on real people. These are common types of people throughout the world and throughout history. You aren’t limited to them, but they should help you as a place to start.
The second key is to give your characters places to grow. Archimedes, through the novel, faces some of his fears and stands up for what’s right, becoming stronger and driving away his cowardice and fear. He transforms over the course of the novel because of what he experiences. As with real people, we encounter things in life that change us. A loved one’s death, a lover who sees things in us we don’t, war, poverty, fear… all kinds of things change us as we go through life both good and bad. Your novel will, naturally, have these experiences in it for your character. Let them grow and change organically as they faces these trials.
I know many people say their characters take on a life of their own and so on, but that’s only partially true. While, yes, our characters do sometimes reveal themselves in unexpected ways the person ultimately controlling your novel and your characters is you. I do not ascribe to the theory that characters do their own thing because, frankly, they are nothing more than imaginary creations of the writer. While our imaginations might run away with us, our characters are entirely of our own design. To think otherwise is, frankly, verging on mental illness.
As far as divesting our characters from ourselves goes, that’s harder. Each character we create is a mirror for some aspect of ourselves, however small. We wouldn’t have invented them otherwise. These characters collectively are reflect slivers of our souls. If your characters aren’t doing that, and they’re coming out flat, that may be why. I feel for and with my characters as I write. When they suffer pain, so do I. When they feel triumph, I feel that rush. That flow of emotion is something readers pick up on, also. Assuming your writing is good, that is.
That emotion, and that reflection of the soul, is what creates the spark of life. I identify with Archimedes’ struggles, to some extent. While I don’t face the same things or react the same way, he show some of the things that I want to be at my best. He also faces some of the fears I have at my worst. Other characters in my world are similar. That includes the villains. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I am secretly an evil person, it does mean that there is a piece of humanity in that character. A fragment of a soul that the reader should, hopefully feel.