I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the more you treat the people in your story like people and the less like characters the more vivid, lifelike, and believable they will be. As a writer it’s your job to keep the reader entertained, but there are more subtleties to it. You want to keep them turning pages so that they want to reach the end of the book. To give the reader motivation to turn the page to find out what happens next, the reader needs to care about what happens next. They will not care about what happens next if they have no investment in the characters in the book.
What all of this means is that readers will put the book down if they don’t identify with, sympathize with, or want to be like, characters in the book. If the reader has no emotional investment in any of the people in the book, then they don’t give a crap about what happens to your protagonist. They won’t want to see the antagonist get his (or hers) in the end. They won’t care whether the love interest blossoms into a relationship. They simply won’t care – no matter how good the plot is. You can have a fantastic plot driven by flat, unbelievable, caricatures (not characters).
One of the things that I see a lot, especially when reading the fantasy genre is that an author will fail to make their character real enough by making them too perfect or sometimes even the reverse: too flawed. When characters reach an extreme like that they cease to be people with whom the reader can form a bond and become nothing more than an archetype. You could easily replace “Character A”‘s looks, personality, background, and name with an entirely new persona and the book would read the same way. This is because “Character A” is just that – generic and lifeless. They’re a placeholder, not a source of motivation or inspiration to the reader.
I’m not saying that this is a cardinal sin. No, if you look at the bookshelves of a Barnes & Noble on any given day, you’ll see countless popular books with archetype placeholders instead of living, breathing characters. Some readers can tolerate it.
If you think about your characters like real people then giving them a rich, full history filled with joys and sorrows, flaws and positive traits, becomes easy. Think about all of the things that motivate your character through the book – the history and life experience that pushes them to make the decisions they make. You could leave all of that stuff unsaid, or you could turn all of those motivations into chances to breathe real life into the character. What if your ultra-brave soldier protagonist suddenly has a burst of paralyzing fear because the sight of the enemy recalls some childhood horror? To me, that’s far more believable than a soldier who is brave and strong throughout the entire book. What if your main character has an addiction that they are constantly fighting and struggling with? Not only will millions of readers be able to identify with that problem on some level and immediately bond with that character, but it provides a wealth of opportunity for coming up with great struggles, climaxes, victories, failures, and plot twists.
The bottom line is this: think about all of your friends and family. Think about every single one of them. They all have flaws, dents, dings, cracks in the armor and skeletons in the closet. It could be an innocent skeleton like having a secret love of green frosting, or it could be the story of a childhood victim or someone who suffered through a terrible loss that effected them tremendously and changed who they are today. All you have to do is look around you and at the people you live with, talk to, love, and barely know and you will find a plethora of flaws, character traits, and histories that chisel your character into a real person instead of a bland, generic archetype.