The secret to good fiction isn’t plot. It isn’t setting. It’s the characters. It’s characters we want; characters we love. Characters we fall in love with. Characters that break our hearts. A good, solid character can make the most trite, contrived story feel fresh and new. A good character can save a bad story. A bad story can’t save a good character.
But how? That’s the question. It’s always the question. How?
I’ve written much on creating compelling characters (and suspect I’ll write more, in an effort to fully explain what I know how to do by instinct, as all writers do when they explain something you just have to know how to do to do) but it all comes down to desire, wants, dreams… the things that compel humans through their lives are the same things that drive good characters.
Here’s an example: create a person. Male, female, whatever. Write down their details in a handy little chart. Name, age, sex, birthplace, mother, father, siblings, hair color, height, right-or-left-handed, eye color, skin color, nationality, everything you can think of.
That’s physical. And necessary. Maybe not in the story, but for you as a writer to know your characters. But you don’t stop there. Now you need to hit some of the depths.
Who was their first kiss? What’s their most embarrassing moment? What food do they love/hate? What do they do for fun? What chore do they love? Hate? Ignore? Are they a slob or neat? Are they lazy? Industrious? Good at math? Bad at science? What do they like or love about themselves? Have they ever cheated on a spouse or significant other? Have they been cheated on? Are they secretly gay (or straight, which is far more interesting)? Do they steal library books? Pick their noses when no one is looking? Kick puppies? Call suicide hotlines and fake hanging themselves to see if they can make the person on the other end frantic? Do they volunteer at a suicide hotline? Why?
But you need to go really deep. At the heart of all good characters is a question. One question.
What will this person never, ever, under any circumstances, on pain of death, NEVER do?
You need to know what could break that character. Then you need to write a story in which that exact line is the one they have to cross. When that character goes to pieces in front of you, when you have to write THAT scene… then you’ll know what a good character really is. And then you’ll know how to do it. And maybe when you do, you can explain it to me.