Three tips for transforming a character from dreary to intriguing

Have you ever had a character just sit there on the page – not literally, of course, but figuratively – simply refusing to do anything exciting? One of the (many, many) challenging aspects of being a writer is that our task is to create interesting people. We’ve all been there, struggling to flesh out one of our creations and wishing there was a magic wand we could wave to bring them to life on the page. And if writing about a character feels boring, it doesn’t bear imagining how the reader will feel.

Although we don’t have a magic wand for you, we have got three almost-magic techniques that you can use to make your characters more interesting.

1. Give them a flaw

We’re not talking about any old flaws here – we’re not suggesting you should make your character a bit clumsy, or unduly partial to Crocs, or let them have one too many glasses of wine on a night out. Not all flaws are created equal: the value of a character flaw lies in its relationship to the story. Your character’s flaws shouldn’t just be there for the sake of making the character not-perfect. The flaws need to get in the character’s way as they work towards their goal in the story. In fact, this is what qualifies them as “flaws” – in a different context, those same characteristics could be strengths.

If your character is on a voyage of self-discovery that involves meeting and befriending other characters and learning about themselves in the process, then being overly particular about how the dishwasher is stacked isn’t going to make your character more interesting. Being painfully shy or inarticulate will make those interactions – and your character – more difficult, and therefore more intriguing. On the other hand, if you’re writing a story of escalating tension among a group of bickering housemates, then the dishwasher obsession will make a great flaw. (And if your character wants to climb Mount Taranaki, then by all means have them insist on wearing Crocs and get them airlifted into hospital, where they have to explain what on earth they were thinking.)

2. Give them a contradiction

Once you’ve picked a great flaw (or three) for your character, have a think about their other traits. Boring characters are often boring because they’re made up of a collection of characteristics that seem to ‘belong together’. They become stereotypes with no rough edges. The quiet character who likes to write poetry and read books and wear grey cardigans. The outdoorsy character who goes surfing and rock-climbing and wears lycra shorts. Did your eyes start to glaze over just reading those descriptions?

Humans are full of contradictions, and those contradictions influence our behaviour in interesting and at times surprising ways. If your character’s greatest dream is to become a famous actor, could they suffer from crippling stage fright? Could your hopelessly disorganised character somehow land a job as a PA? A contradiction like that is sure to require your character to do something interesting. An easy way to find a contradiction is to think of someone you know who is very different from your character, choose one trait from them, and give that to your character. How about a tough-as-nails teenager who likes to knit?

3. Give them a secret

Our third technique is one of the most powerful ways to make a character interesting, but it is also the most daunting. It’s daunting because it can make you feel like you’re baring your soul to the reader – but that is exactly where its power lies. Every one of us has secrets: things we’ve witnessed, experienced or wanted that we wouldn’t like anyone else to know about. It could be lies we’ve told, things we know we shouldn’t have done, or daydreams we share with no-one.

This technique involves digging deep into the thoughts and feelings you don’t talk about – or maybe even try not to think about. Can you dig out an old secret and give it (or an altered version of it) to your character? What does your character fear might happen if anyone finds out?  What lengths are they willing to go to in order to keep their secret under wraps? Or maybe they’ll bring their secret out into the open in the world of the story. (And when people ask how you created such an interesting character, you can tell them you waved a magic wand.)