Joseph Addison once said, “the essentials to happiness come down to just three things: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” As it happens, these three things are also super relevant when it comes to developing your characters. And by developing your characters, I mean figuring what who the fuck your characters are, and what the fuck they’re doing.
Something to Do
Our characters should always be doing something. Or wanting to do something. Or trying to do something. Doesn’t matter: I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life. But the ‘doing’ part is crucial to making your life easier.
Buffy battles to free Sunnydale one vamp at a time. Katniss volunteers as tribute to save her sister. Harry Potter is just trying to make it to graduation. The point is, dynamic characters never just stand around waiting for fate (and your storyline) to find them. They are always moving, even if they’re not sure where or why. [See problems with character goals!] This, from what I’ve been told, is called agency, but I think labels are scary.
In life, we’re all just throwing pasta at the ceiling, hoping something will stick. Your characters should be no different.
Something to Love
There is nothing worse than a story with a miserable main character who hates everything, except if that story is told in first person, because that is undeniably worse. Don’t do that. Ever. Yes, people are inherently negative, but including that in your character does not help me identify with them. And it’s super easy for me to make your character go away forever.
Now, notice I didn’t say someone to love. I mean, who doesn’t love a little risqué romance now and then? But think about it: how many people do you know whose sole existence revolves around their significant other? Yeah, boring right? Those people suck.
The “something” in “something to love” can literally be anything. Something they’re good at, something they’re bad at, something they like, and so on. Hermione loves school. Merry and Pippin love food. Katniss loves her sister. Bella loves Edward. It’s what we, as the reader, connect with because it’s something we can understand.
Something to Hope For
This is quite possibly the most important element to give a character, as writing the story becomes infinitely harder without it. We all hope for something. Having your character do the same is a stupid-easy way to make us, your reader, identify with that character right away.
Hope should not be confused with your character’s goal. If attaining that hope is what drives your character through the story- well shit, that’s great. Achievement unlocked. If not, that’s totally cool, because goals are stupid anyway.
That hope your character has is beside the story. It doesn’t even have to factor in; we just need to know it’s there. My main character hopes for a better life. Is she actively seeking to better her life? No. In fact, she’s unwittingly doing just the opposite. My hope is that you identify with her hope and invest your valuable time into seeing whether or not she gets it in the end.
As far as I’m concerned, my characters are real people. I talk about them like they’re real people, and think about them like they’re real people.
Seeing them this way helps give me direction when I deal with them because I understand I cannot control them. They act in accordance with the personalities I gave them, just like we act per the personality the universe gave us. Some call it delusional. I call it efficient. What do you call it?