There's nothing that makes a story more compelling, more believable, and more arousing than creating life-like characters. They are the eyes and ears through which a reader sees the action and events of the story. They are the link between your mind, and the psyche of potentially the entire world.
Some people believe that character is the most important thing of all, that the success of a story hangs and falls on proper character creation, development, and maintenance. Others believe that a character is the story, and what happens to the characters, how they deal with things, and who they become as a result is what the whole thing is all about.
This writing guide will explore some pointers and techniques on creating "real" story people, developing them, and maintaining them until the end when everything's resolved. Yes, there are some tips, techniques, and tricks. There is a bit of "magic" to it all. Figuring out and using this magic is what makes writing fun and thrilling.
As with my other writing guide, Elements of Erotic Fiction, this guide assumes you know the basic fundamentals of spelling and grammar, and some general principals about story structure—beginning, middle, end, plot, conflict, etc. If you don't know these things, read the other guides first.
Now let's begin, shall we?
A character is born in your reader's mind, not yours. Every human being has a certain sense of unspoken understanding about the world and the people in it. You know things about people. You don't know how you know, but somehow you do. Whether it's that one particular person you see on the bus every single day, the one with the shifty eyes, who hugs her purse tightly to her chest even when no one's anywhere near her. Or the loud, obnoxious customer who frequents the coffee shop near your work, always barking angrily into his cell phone. Or the tired, distracted-looking mom cleaning her kids' toys off the lawn in the house across the street from you. You know these people immediately. You've seen them many times. You know all about them, though you may never have actually met or spoken to them.
This is the first great secret to character creation: your readers will do 95% of the character creation work for you, based on their assumptions about people. All you have to do is point at someone and get the ball rolling a bit, and readers will do the rest. Then, once the ball is rolling, you have to get the hell out of the way. Get out from in between yourself and the reader and let them do what they do best, what any frequent reader enjoys most about reading in the first place: figuring people out, solving the puzzle that is a human life.
Every human being is prejudiced in some ways. There's simply not enough time to get to know every single person we meet deeply enough to really know them. Yet we've still gotta deal with people everyday. How do we manage the impossibly huge cast of characters that is our daily life, where dozens of new people walk on and off stage every single day? We manage it through the cunning use of stereotypes, clichés, and prejudices. We see people, and somehow know all about them because our minds have become masterfully adept at taking shortcuts, making guesses, running with first impressions and assumptions. We have certain archetypes and we simply pigeonhole people into these groups in our minds and deal with them that way.
"You know that guy from the copy place," Jane said, "the one with the nose ring, and the spiky hair?"
"Oh yeah: Mr. Neck Tattoo. What about him?" Sylvie asked.
"I think he was flirting with me today."
Sylvie turned, raised her eyebrows, and smiled wide. Her morning had just gotten a whole lot more interesting.
Three different characters were introduced above—Jane, Sylvie, and a young man from a nearby copy centre. Five sentences in, only five, and you've already got a pretty good picture of who these people are, don't you? You've probably even guessed at the setting this conversation takes place in. In an instant you've done a thousand and one mental calculations and have sorted the situation into any of your dozens of clichés, archetypes, and prejudices. You've done this without being told to, and you did it instantly. You probably enjoyed it too.
See, human beings love feeling like they've figured something out on their own. It gives us a secret giddy thrill that can't be matched. Show us a puzzle, and our minds switch on. And then, when we get it, the light bulb comes on and we glow with an inner sense of self-satisfaction. We suddenly "get it" and for a brief shining moment, we feel a little less confused and useless in this chaotic world. This is what makes reading so enjoyable for people. This is what makes writing so easy. In fact, I'd say creating characters is probably the easiest part of your job as an author. The work has already been done for you, by the reader.
Clichés are your friend. Stereotypes are a weapon in your hand. They're the jumping off point that gets the ball rolling between you and your reader. It's the fuel that starts up the engine and gets the story vehicle moving. Press on the gas pedal of cliché a bit and get started. Vroom! Feel the power? Clichés are awesome that way.
Of course, if you press on the gas without actually steering eventually, you're gonna crash. Bang! Your story hit a wall. Boom! Your readers have bailed out and are running for their lives. Yes, start with a cliché, but don't rest on them too long. You're gonna eventually have to steer the vehicle of story where you want it to go. You're gonna have to take your readers on a tour.
All that just to say that essentially your readers do all the work when it comes to creating life-like, believable, and detailed characters. Their imaginations are where the real magic lies, not yours. All you do is point their focus here and there.
Imagine yourself as an invisible cameraman, broadcasting a live feed to all the world from wherever you happen to sneak off to in the world. Nobody can see or hear you when you're there, and you have the power to go into any locked room, any secure location, like a ghost as it were, moving through walls, you and your camera. You even have the power to hear people's thoughts, and sense their emotions. You're completely invisible, and you're out to show the world how people really behave when no one's looking. You're not there to tell them how things are. You're invisible, and your job is to stay as invisible as you can through the whole thing, so you can show them a real person, in a real story, in the real world.
Maybe it's not the real world. Maybe it's a completely made up one. But one thing's for sure: your characters better believe it's the real world, even if, as Bill and Ted put it, strange things are afoot at the Circle K. It doesn't have to be "real". It just has to be believable, and the reader's mind makes it real. And when strange things are afoot at the Circle K, and the audience believes it, you're suddenly a magician as well as a camera man.
See, your real job as an author is to simply point your invisible camera at things, making a movie in the reader's mind. You're invisible, but your style comes in based on the angles you use, the objects and actions you point at, as well as the million and one things you ignore completely.
The true mark of an amateur author is the one who's so insecure about their writing that they feel the need to step in and explain to the reader what's going on. "Just in case you didn't figure it out, Sylvie's a mischievous little tart of a woman who lives for the next juicy piece of gossip she can sink her teeth into. And Jane's the shy single girl who's honestly surprised by any sort of interest anyone shows in her. They're in an office, passing the day by blabbering about every little tidbit they can think of."
Hey! Down in front! I'm trying to watch the movie here! Imagine a theatre where some minimum wage teenager gets on the public address system and stands there explaining the whole movie to you as you watch it, overstating the obvious and just generally distracting you from the story every fifteen seconds or so. He'd be flayed alive within fifteen minutes I bet. Either that or people would just get up and leave, demanding their money back. This is essentially what's going on with amateur authors who don't make themselves invisible, who tell you instead of showing you.
But pointing your attention to the wrong way of doing things reveals an interesting point more clearly: readers are sitting there figuring your story out on their own. They don't need your help. They just need you to show them what's going on with the people in the world you've created. They'll do all the work themselves, and they prefer it that way. This is the first great secret to creating characters.
Start off with a cliché, a stereotypical man, woman, or child who everyone identifies with immediately: the self-absorbed high school sports star, the harried housewife, the driven go-getter type businessman, the little old lady who's kind to animals and grows her own carrots and tomatoes in her back yard. Choose whatever character type you need for your story. Give them a reason for being involved in the action.
At this point they're merely a prop that you intend to hang the action on. They're simply a tool you use to tell your tale. Of course, you don't stop here, but you've gotta start somewhere:
Sylvie plunked her hand down on her cheek, scrolling through the emails of the day, bored, blank, and almost bewildered by the monotony of the morning, sipping her coffee and trying to drown out the din of the office with the morning's distracting emails.
You've got your typical twenty-something office worker, bored at her desk, and longing for distraction. It's as familiar as the colour grey. Already the reader knows a hundred thousand things about Sylvie. They've just gotta sort through them and narrow it down to some specifics.
Now take that stereotype and twist it ever-so-slightly. You're not simply adding more details here. You don't need to. We got it already. She's a bored office worker. Done. Let's move on. You're twisting the stereotype slightly so that this one particular peon suddenly becomes unique. The possibilities are endless, limited only by your imagination. This is where the fun comes in:
She looked up, saw her boss behind the window of his office, talking on the phone. She focused in on his lips. She saw the words he was speaking. His voice suddenly sounded in her mind as she watched him behind the inch-thick soundproof glass: "I'm gonna go get a coffee. We'll meet to discuss this little problem further. How's tomorrow for you? Noon? Great! Bye-bye!"
"Heads up, Jane. Big Guy coming your way," she muttered.
Jane closed her solitaire game and began shuffling papers as though intently looking for something she needed. Sylvie closed the email joke she was reading and suddenly a spreadsheet appeared on her screen.
Did you catch that? The reader just leaned in for a closer look. There's a puzzle here that suddenly needs solving. How did Sylvie know what the boss was saying from behind the glass? What's going on? I better figure this out.
And so the game is on. You've thrown out the first pitch and the readers are involved now. Their eyes are on the ball. Suddenly, Sylvie's not just your average everyday office drone. She's special. She's interesting. She's a puzzle to solve.
And how much work have you actually done so far? Have you written reams and reams of pages outlining her entire back story, her physical appearance, her personality? Nope. We don't even know her last name. We simply pointed the camera at her as she watched her boss talk on the phone. And yet we all somehow know her. And not only do we know her, we suddenly want to spend more time with her, we want to figure her out. It's magic.
What happens to her in this story is not the point. What she does with this ability of hers is beyond the scope of this writer's guide. It's funny though, isn't it: The fact that I'm not gonna tell you what happens to Sylvie is kinda bugging you now, right? You want to read on and see what becomes of her.
The boss walked by, looking sombre and menacing as he glanced at each woman at her desk. "Keep looking busy, ladies," he said. "The boss is here." Then he was gone. The scent of him lingered though, and Sylvie wrinkled her nose at it. He smelled like he'd rolled in iron shavings and coal dust before coming to work.
"Asshole," Jane muttered, reopening her solitaire game.
"You never should have fucked him, Jane. Promotion or not, it was the worst mistake you ever made. Now he owns you."
Hey! Stop it! Suddenly, Jane's more interesting too, and you're not gonna tell me what happened or how it ends! And why the hell does the Boss smell like coal dust? What the fuck? Tell me!!!
I would, if this was a story. But it's not. It's a writing guide. Sylvie and Jane and the boss, don't even exist anyway. I just made them up. So why do you care?
It's not because of anything I did. I just pointed my camera at a scene. It's your own mind that's making it interesting. I started with a cliché and slanted it slightly, making it unique, and now you're interested. Maybe not enthralled, but it's only been half a page so far. There's still time.
Got it? Good. Let's move on.
They say God is all-powerful, but he leaves the freedom of choice to each individual person to do as they see fit. He controls the weather, the storms, the overall tides of life and humanity, but each individual person's fate is in his own hands. This is the kind of god you need to be in the worlds you create.
Remember, you're an invisible cameraman. You're not a director. You're not there to tell people how to react and behave. They're real people. They'll figure that out on their own. All you do is use your god-like omnipotence to set up a situation for them to resolve. Then you point your camera and hide away in the reader's mind.
What happens next? What do they do about it? What happens after that? What do they do about that? These are essentially the only things the reader really wants to know. It's an endless chain that gradually builds up to a critical moment where everything is either won or lost by the characters. This is what story is all about.
But we're not here to talk about story. We're here to talk about characters. I mention story because the next great secret to character writing is that characters define themselves. Once you get them started, once you've turned on the camera, pointed it at them, and thrown a situation at them with your god-like omnipotence, they will start doing things. They can't not react.
How they react is entirely up to them though. You're an author, not a puppet master. If you start trying to direct and control them, the story dies. If you tell them how to think, what to feel, how to act and react, they're not characters anymore. They're you, inside an office worker's body. The real fun or writing though is not to lord power over someone, directing them and controlling them at your every whim. The real fun comes in simply throwing shit at them and watching them react.
Remember Daffy Duck in that famous Duck Amuck episode where a mysterious animator started messing with the scenery and sound? Nobody told Daffy how to act and react. He was just being Daffy. Hilarity ensued.
Remember Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber, when the busload of swimsuit models drives up looking for a couple of oil boys? The director begged them to shoot a take where the two of them got on the bus and lived happily ever after, but Jim Carey wouldn't do it. "My character would never do that in a million years."
You own the world, but the characters own themselves. And since the story is about them, they own the story. Just stand back and watch.
Active people are interesting: people who move around, get things done, see a problem and solve it. These are the people we want to hang out with. These are the people we let run around inside our minds. We give them free reign of our imagination and watch as they fight for the freedom of the galaxy, or simply struggle just to get through the day. We follow them through their fight, and if the story's good enough, we'd pay good money to see how it ends. They're awesome.
Alternatively, there's the kind of people who just let shit happen to them and sit around complaining about it. You know a lot of people like this. Maybe you're one of them. These are the people we want to escape from, even if it's ourselves. We desperately want the heroes of the world to lead us away into their battles so we can get away from the monotonous morons who talk our ear off about how shitty their situation is but never really do anything about it. This is why we read stories, watch TV shows and movies in the first place. To escape! To get away from the dull, boring, losers of the world, especially if the dull, boring, losers are ourselves.
So the next big secret of creating characters is action. If your characters are just sitting around complaining all the time with their thumb up their ass, it's your job as the author, as god of the story universe, to orchestrate a situation that forces them to get off their butts and do something. Be brave, be bold, be merciless in your storms, but get them moving! Don't try to be nice about it. Don't make everything beautiful and peaceful for them. Don't give them every advantage and make things always go their way. If they really are heroes, a life like that would bore the shit out of them. They'd start stirring up trouble on their own, just so they had something to do, wouldn't they?
Stir up trouble for them. Create a storm, a crisis, some sort of drama, something for them to react to, something that forces a decision and/or action. There are literally no rules here. You're omnipotent in the story's universe. If your characters are real people, their reaction to even the oddest, most bizarre situation will make it believable.
There are no rules when it comes to your omnipotence, but there should be some sort of point to it all. Even the most compelling character in the direst situation will leave the reader feeling shafted if there's no ultimate point to it all. What is your point? Why are you throwing every imaginable problem at your character? Just for your own sadistic amusement? Just to watch them dance like an Old West outlaw shooting at an inn keeper's feet? No. There should always be an ultimate point.
The ultimate point to a story falls into two possible categories, or a combination of the two: either the story itself is the point, solving the problem, saving the world, rescuing the princess, whatever, or else the characters' change is the whole point. The first option is the obvious one. There's no need to explain it really. But the second option is more subtle. You see, when our story heroes are sent through the gauntlet of disasters you've cooked up for them we not only want to see their reaction to the whole mess — we also want to see how it affected them.
Sure Sylvie discovers the boss is involved in some shady dealings that could potentially bring the entire company down, destroying reputations of innocent people, and putting hundreds out of work. And sure she sends Jane in to fuck his brains out, manipulating him for more and more information as the story progress. And sure he's a sick fuck who brings their sexual relationship to deeper and deeper levels of depravity. And sure Sylvie eventually blows the lid off the whole thing, sending the prick to jail for 90 years where he's ass-raped by a gorilla of a man named Pebbles for the rest of his life. Sure she redeemed every innocent bystander involved and lived happily ever after. But how did it effect them? How were they changed in the end? What is the ultimate point? What's the walk-away message, as it's called in theatre circles? What do you want your readers to be thinking about long after the story is finished?
Characters rule themselves, but like any human beings, they can change over time, if you throw the right situation at them. And this is the most gratifying ending of all, isn't it? Especially if the change is for the better, if Jane's shyness had held her back all her life until she finds herself permanently changed by the experience she has with her boss as she worms her way into his private life. And in the end when she finally stands up for herself, finally goes after the one guy she really wanted all along, we almost wanna stand up and cheer. And when Sylvie's gossipy, manipulative ways spell trouble for one of her closest friends, and she finally realizes the true meaning of trust and respect, we walk away with a deep satisfaction at having gone along on the journey with them, a journey that ultimately had a point to it.
The trials you throw at your character should ultimately be leading them toward a believable change, a change they came to on their own, deeply moved by the action of the story, the one change they really needed all along.
"The true worth of a man is to be measured in the objects which he pursues."
— Marcus Aureleus
What your characters want is as essential to who they are as what they do. It's essentially why they do the things they do, right? The reader wants to know what each character wants so that they can care about whether or not they get it. Good guys and bad guys, main characters and supporting cast, everyone should have desires that define them. And they should at some point early on, reveal these desires. It's your job as an author to show your characters wanting something without needing to explain what it is or why they want it.
Now, the things they want might not even be what they really need, and if you can show this and let the reader figure that out on their own, you've zinged them once again with self-satisfaction. They'll love you for it. Your story could even be based on misplaced desires and the resolution of them in the end. You see this a lot in chick flicks, where what the girl thought she wanted wasn't really what was best for her in big picture. The audience knew it all along (hopefully the writer wasn't too blunt about it), and when she finally figures things out in the end, everyone walks away smiling.
A couple of notes about character desire though. They should be relevant, and the root of the desire, if not the desire itself, should be attainable. For example, if little Johnny's fondest desire is to fly like Superman, but the story is really a murder mystery or something, things go awry. Who cares if Johnny can fly away like the birds when there's a homicide to be solved!? You have to keep desires relevant to the story, or failing that, keep the story relevant to the desires. Supporting cast are exempt from this rule. They can want whatever the hell they feel like wanting, and it just makes them more interesting, but the main characters' desires need to be relevant somehow.
Secondly, the roots of the desires need to be attainable. I say the root because there's a difference between the desire itself, and the root of it. For example, little Jenny in Forest Gump wanted to become a bird, so she could fly far, far far away. Obviously that's not attainable in the literal sense, but anyone who thinks about it for two seconds with half a brain in their head knows that it's not really about flying. It's about escape. The root of her desire was escape, and that was attainable. In the end she was able to let go of her past and find the centre of herself, escaping from the prison of who her father tried to make her believe she was.
Set up every character in your story with strong, fundamental desires, and the story will pretty much write itself.
The other thing that defines characters at the most fundamental level is how they attempt to solve their problems—their methodologies. Insanity is defined by some as attempting the exact same thing in the exact same way and expecting different results. Unfortunately that's how many of us live our daily lives as we struggle to overcome our problems.
Characters are no different, at least at first. Part of the main problem they're usually having is attempting to solve their problems in the same old way, the way that never worked in the past, and it ain't gonna do no good now.
Eventually things change though. They let go of their old methodologies and try something new--a doubter decides to believe, an angry character stops to think things through before he acts, an indecisive character finally takes action, a shallow character stops to look at someone a little more deeply. Without being too blunt about it, you make a shift in how the character attempts to deal with things, and the reader takes a deep breath and says "Now we're getting somewhere! Way to go, dude!"
Consider your characters' methodologies before you begin your story. Examining human beings on a deeper level like this in your writing means the difference between simply beating the bad guy and winning the girl, and actually saying something about life that matters.
As human beings we rely on clichés, prejudices, stereotypes to sort the million and one things we know about people into manageable levels of information. This is a very challenging process. It can be mentally overwhelming at times. As an author, part of your job is to make this sorting process easier for the reader, not more difficult. The principal way of doing this is by narrowing down the goals for character change to one basic element each.
We all have a countless number of flaws, quirks and hang-ups that lead toward our downfalls, but behind them all there's usually one root flaw—the tragic flaw, as it's called. Choose a single flaw in your character that needs to be addressed and ignore everything else. Work on one thing at a time. Hammer away at them until they finally "get it", and finally change once and for all.
The same thing goes with desires. Narrow down the focus to one single definitive desire and things will be much more beautiful when that desire is attained, or bittersweet if it's not.
Problems and confusion arise when you try to take a character in too many directions. Jack is selfish, and he's insecure, and he's indecisive, and he's afraid deep down inside, and he's too violent. Ahhh! Narrow it down a bit, would ya? Put them all on a roulette wheel tragic flaws and spin it. Where she stops, only the author knows.
You have to narrow it down for the reader so they can label things, so they can keep track of them mentally. Jack is the "indecisive" one. Jill is the "slutty" one. Martin is the "stupid" guy. Readers stick these labels on characters in stories, especially minor characters, so that they can keep track of them in their heads, so they can know them better without really knowing them. Labels aren't your enemy as a writer; one-dimensional archetypes aren't bad things. Boring stories are bad things. There's a big difference.
I'm not telling you to deliberately make your characters overly simple and predictable. That's not my point at all. I'm just saying that by narrowing down the issues in any given character's head, you make it easier for the reader to comprehend the overall picture, and if you're dealing with more than two or three characters, archetypes are nearly essential. Just remember that archetypes are the basis of your character. You should never stop there. Start with a stereotype, and then slant it a bit.
For the same reason readers need you to keep the character types simple, they also need you to keep character's consistent. Integrity is an object's ability to retain its shape, even under pressure. If something becomes disintegrated, it essentially falls apart.
Don't disintegrate your characters. Your readers need them to behave as expected. I'm not saying to make your characters predictable. I'm saying make them consistent. If someone is erratic and spontaneous all through the story, keep it that way. If someone is boring and predicable, keep them that way as well. Eventually, one would hope, something comes along and knocks them out of their groove, like the main events of the story for example, but they're still gonna try to adapt their old patterns and methods to the new situation, at least for a little while. It takes an awful lot to fundamentally change someone and it should never happen over the course of a single scene.
Another trick to creating compelling characters is to superman them up a bit. Give them some special ability that you kinda wish you had. Stop far short of turning them into mini gods of course, but having one little trick that only they can do makes for an awesomely cool read, and it further helps with clarity in a large cast.
Think of Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Think of the sniper guy from Saving Private Ryan. Or the number crunching Andy Dufresne was good at in Shawshank Redemption. What about the math and memory abilities of Ray Babbitt from Rain Man? Or the musical genius of Mozart in the movie Amadeus? Neo from The Matrix? I could go on and on, but you see the point. If you give your character something that makes the reader go "Wow! Cool! I wish I could do that!" you've roped them in hard, and you'll hold them fast until everything's resolved.
Don't over do it! With every special ability should come a limitation, some weakness that balances things out. If your character wakes up one morning and discovers he has the power to read minds, turn invisible, and see through walls, there better be some serious problems that come with it, or things are gonna get boring really quick. Most stories aren't that over the top though. Most stories are about normal everyday people, in tough situations. It never hurts to give them something special though, that only they can do.
These special abilities should help them along the way, but not solve the whole problem for them. The real problem should be much bigger than simple Kung-fu expertise or telepathic powers can resolve. I never liked Sleeping Beauty much. The damn little fairies and their magic wands won the whole day. All the characters did was just bumble around getting conveniently enchanted into success at every turn. Cinderella was the same way. All she had to do was stand around looking pretty and not being a bitch and she won the handsome prince with a few waves of her fairy godmother's wand. Not much of a story there. Dumbo with his gigantic ears... at least he had to find courage and believe in himself in spite of a lifetime of ridicule. Now that's a story.
Give your character a magic wand, or phenomenal psychic abilities, or massive strength, but chain them down a bit with limitations, challenges, and flaws that make the story about something else, other than how cool the special ability is.
Another trick to creating unique and compelling characters is throwing in a bit of mystery, some unanswered question that keeps the reader turning the pages, scrolling the mouse, etc. Who is this tall, dark, and handsome fellow? Where does he go when he leaves the house at 1:16 a.m. every night? What are his real intentions with our fair heroine? Even slipping in hints that someone might not be who they seem will get the reader's puzzle-o-meter peaking off the scale. And hey, if they figured it out on their own, without you saying anything, even better! Just point your camera and let their imaginations, their mistrust, do the rest.
Sylvie came out of the bathroom, leaned her back against the door for a moment and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and found the centre of herself for a moment. And then she stepped back into the office where she knew she would have to face Jack again, Jack with his accusing eyes, his condemning stare.
When she got out there, Jack was gone however. Jane shrugged when she asked when he'd left and went back to her solitaire with a chuckle. As long as he wasn't around that was fine with her. Sylvie was not so reassured. She'd seen him on the phone again an hour ago, talking angrily about where "the man with the goddamn bag" was and what the hell Aaron was gonna do to find him. Now he was gone. Somehow, though Jack Derritt was the last man on earth she wanted to see at the moment, his absence made her feel even worse.
You can overdo mystery just like you can overdo superman powers. Making things too vague is never good. Trying to cram suspense down a reader's throat through brute force is just as bad, especially if you haven't yet established characters. I once opened a book where the first paragraph began with a man fleeing for his life from some unknown danger. The details went on and on for pages about how he kept looking back, kept diving for cover, stopping to hide and peek around, and then started running again. I imagine this was supposed to "hook me in", get my brain wondering what's going on, but after a few pages with no answers at all, I got annoyed. I felt manipulated, like the author fancied himself some sort of puppet master with me on strings. I tossed the book away and never picked it up again. To this day I still don't care who that guy was running from.
The difference is whether the reader and author are in competition with one another, or on the same side. If the character knows things he's just not telling you, and if he keeps not telling you anything, and there's no other way to find out, eventually it just becomes frustrating. If however, the character is as confused and frustrated as you are, and is fighting to figure things out along with you, then you'll stay for the long haul, rooting for him or her all the way. If there's mystery, there should always be at least one character who's as confused and frightened as the reader is, or it becomes an obnoxious and frustrating competition. The author will lose such competitions every time because the reader has the power to simply walk away. If at least one character works with the reader, everybody wins.
Mystery, suspense, and tension are beautiful things. But they can also kill a story if not used properly. Have you ever over-inflated a balloon and had it pop in your face? You get the idea. Human beings want what they can't have. The same thing applies with information. The scariest most tense movies and books ever made were the ones where what they didn't show you was even scarier than what they did cram in your face.
Which brings us to the most intriguing character of all: the villain. Every hero needs a villain they say, even if the enemy is himself. Here's where archetypes are especially important. A good villain should be the icon, the symbol, a walking representation of everything the hero is fighting against. He or she doesn't even necessarily have to be evil. He just has to be opposite. He just has to want different things and take action to achieve them. It's a lot more fun when the villain is evil though. Nothing's more gratifying than seeing a seriously hated bad guy get his comeuppance in the end.
The main thing authors do to really screw up their villains is not really motivating them enough. If your reader stops to ask why he's fighting so hard to thwart the good guy, simply saying "cause he's the bad guy" is not enough. At the end of almost every action movie things always get to a point where the bad guy's motivation completely breaks down and he's simply fighting just for the sake of being a bad guy. I always roll my eyes at these points and unless it's a really good production I don't even bother finishing it. There has to be some compelling reason for every character to keep fighting, all the way to the end. They have to want something so badly they'll risk everything to get it. It has to be something so important to them that they'll keep fighting even when all hope is lost. This goes for everyone involved, bad guys and good guys.
The other thing authors do to screw up their villains is supermanning them up a little too hard. Giving the villain far too many powers and abilities, far too much influence makes for a frustrating read, no matter how cool the powers are. The key you're shooting for is balance. Every power needs a limitation. Every ability needs a downside. Like the good guys, the villain's abilities shouldn't "win the war for them" so to speak, but they should at least make the good guy's life incredibly difficult. In the end though, there should always be some hope of success, some reason for the good guys to keep trying, though victory may seem impossible. The good guy should never come to a point where it's all pointless and they're just fighting just for the sake of it. In other words, don't overload your bad guy with superpowers or super influence. It's not so much that it's bad to make things extremely challenging for your characters. It's just that when the good guys do win in the end, it always ends up being by some implausible fluke that rendered all their blood, sweat, and tears irrelevant all along, and that's just as annoying as the good guys not winning at all. War of the Worlds was the worst example of this. When I first saw that movie, I was so pissed off I wanted to punch H. G. Wells in the face.
Like desires, flaws, and abilities, you should narrow down quirks, habits, and mannerisms to one distinctive, definitive quirk, even though people in real life usually have many. It falls under the category of keeping things simple once again. Is your character a nail-biter? Don't make them a stutterer as well. Is your character a compulsive hand-washer? Don't make them a chain-smoker as well.
The devil is in the details they say. Attaching something as simple as a habit, a quirk, or a mannerism makes your characters instantly recognizable in the cast, and usually fairly fascinating as well. I once knew a guy who carried a small tube of crazy glue around with him and glued his finger tips together in an okay sign, just for fun, and then slowly worked them apart again over the course of a few hours. I'm not sure why he did it, but it was weird and interesting. Same thing goes for the girl who used to chew on her hair. Literally. She'd put a clump of her hair in her mouth and chew on it. It was actually pretty gross, but you can picture it, can't you? You'd look at her from across the room and have her all sorted into your archetype files within seconds. What's more, you'd probably remember her for the rest of your life, if you spent enough time with her.
"Remember that chick who used to chew her hair? I wonder what she's doing now-a-days."
Tack on an odd quirk here and there, especially to the supporting cast. And give your main characters one distinctive habit or mannerism. Just make sure it's not something distracting or annoying. You want details to fill in the picture more completely, not take the reader right out of it.
What I haven't mentioned so far is appearance. Appearance is mostly irrelevant. Very few stories are written where the plot stands or falls on the presence of some physical feature or other. I dare say that you can go an entire story without mentioning any specific physical details about your character at all, and the typical reader wouldn't mind one bit. After all, they do most of the work in their heads anyway. They decide what the character looks like based on their own stereotypes. The school bully in your story probably looks like the bully they remember from their own school. And you know what? It's probably better to let them think that. It'll have more emotional impact for them that way. It'll make it more personal. If the bully from their school days had blonde hair and blue eyes, let them picture it that way. Don't derail that emotional anchor by attaching black hair and green eyes to the bully. Whenever possible, unless it's relevant to the plot somehow, let the reader decide for themselves what the character looks like, sounds like, how they dress, etc.
Sometimes a character's appearance defines them. It's part of their archetype. A man shuffling down the street in ragged clothes, stinking of whisky and picking food out of his beard is probably not gonna need to be called a vagrant at any point in the story. It's obvious. For the most part though, if the specifics could go either way, leave the decision to your reader. Is she blonde or brunette? Is she fat or skinny? Tall or short? What does it matter if you've already made it very clear from her actions that she's a fuckin' heartless bitch? Ultimately, when it comes to character, clothing and style is more important than whether or not he has a "strong, chiselled jaw" or she has "soft, rounded cheekbones". In the end though, if it's not directly relevant to the story or the character, not even clothing or style matter.
Most importantly of all: show me, don't tell me. You're a camera man, not a fashion critic.
What you definitely should not do is leave the specifics to some point well into your story. If the reader's been picturing a character a certain way (which they will inevitably do on their own), suddenly mentioning that the heartless bitch is actually a fiery redhead is gonna be somewhat jarring. If you must include physical description, put it in the first couple minutes of the read.
The same thing goes for race, religion, nationality, etc. Whenever possible, let the reader decide for themselves what country your characters are from, especially in the internet age, when your story may be read all the way across the world. Talk about "the school", and "the street", or "the park", rather than say, the corner of Banner Avenue and Vine Street in Los Angeles, California. Let the readers fill in their own blanks. They prefer it that way.
Naming a character is important too. Make sure you anticipate the reader's archetypes when you name your characters. Bad guys usually have names with a lot of hard consonants and short vowels—Craig, Jack, Lex, etc., while good guys' names tend to softer consonants and long vowels—John, Raymond, Peter, etc. I'm not sure why this is. It's psychological I think.
Whatever you choose, make sure it's something you don't mind typing 10,000 times over the course of the story, and make sure it's something that rolls off the tongue fairly smoothly. Calling your main character Rebecca Davenport or something like that is gonna get tiresome very quickly, even inside our minds as we read it over and over again. Go with something smooth and easy. Becky Davis is much better, easier to type, and easier to say (even inside your mind).
I'm not gonna tell you that back-story is not important. It's sometimes crucial to who a character is, what they want, and why they do what they do. What I am gonna tell you is that back-story is something that's usually more important for you to know than the reader. The part of the character you see is the tip of the iceberg. The back-story is the rest of it. You should have a fairly detailed idea of your character's past, the most important details anyway, and then lock it away inside a trunk in your mind. Back-story helps to furnish your character with quirks that make them unique and interesting, and you don't even have to explain the cause for these quirks to be effective.
Say for example your character once saw a kid get mauled by a dog, a definitive moment in someone's personality development to say the least. So there's this detail, locked away in the trunk in your mind. You know it, the character knows it, but the reader doesn't. So then when your character is walking down the street and he looks down and sees a child's drawing of a dog etched into the sidewalk in chalk, he stops, and goes all the way into the street to avoid it. Weird huh? "Why'd he do that?" the reader wonders. It's not crucial to the plot though, so why get into it? There's no need to derail the whole story with a long narrative about the dog attack that happened when the guy was only seven, all that just to say, "So that's why he went into the road instead of stepping right over the picture of the dog."
If the story is about this guy overcoming his fear of dogs, then go for it obviously, but if it's about his attempt to bring down a ring of drug-smuggling terrorists or whatever, chalk it up to an interesting quirk.
To sum it up, just remember that the reader's the one who does all the work. You're just the cameraman inside their heads. Get the ball rolling, and get out of the way. Point your camera and hide. Show, don't tell.
Start with a stereotype and slant it a bit.
You're god in your world, but your characters should have freewill. Your job is to throw problems at them to get them working towards an ultimate change. It's your world, but it's their story.
Desires define us. What a character wants is as important as how they act.
Whether it's desires, habits, flaws, or abilities, stick with one basic element per character. Less is more. Make sorting easier for the reader, not harder.
Mystery is good as an appetizer, but it sucks as a meal. Too much obscurity kills your story.
Bad guys need just as much motivation as the good guys. Sometimes more.
Add in very specific details, but only as much details as you need to make a point. Keep back-story in the back.