Well written characters sell books. Great characters are truly immortal, some even become definitive: Scrooge, Dickens hard, bent miser, is often used as a noun to describe such a person. Ordinary, relatable characters like, Harry Potter, can draw fans back again and again. Villains like Hannibal Lecter can surpass the page and become iconic. Think of: Huck Finn, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Lisbeth Salander, Atticus Finch, Frodo Baggins. The greatest and most memorable books are filled with characters you never forget.
What makes a great character? Hannibal Lecter and Frodo Baggins couldn't be more different. But what do they have in common? They are both so intricately portrayed that when they appear on the page, we are immediately drawn into their world. Imagine an evening spent with either of them. A Saturday night with Frodo might consist of a slice of bread and stew, smoking a bit of pipe-weed and having some ale over conversation and song. On the opposite spectrum, is Hannibal Lecter. If you're lucky enough not to offend him and become a victim, you might find yourself at an extravagant dinner featuring the best wine, music and cerebral conversation.
So how does an author inject that 'special quality' into a character?
Understand Your Character
The basics of characterization: physical appearance, job experience, hobbies and religious affiliation are things you should decide for every main and secondary character in your book. That's the easy stuff. But what brings a character out of a portrait and into the world is understanding them, knowing their motivations.
In my novel, Losing Grip, the protagonist, Kristine Platt, is adverse and reluctant to becoming involved in a serious romantic relationship. It's part of the plot, and I can simply state this to the reader, but it's far more impactful to know why and to demonstrate it, if you have the opportunity. For Kristine, her childhood created the fear of loving another person so much, that it becomes a detriment. Her parents were deeply in love, and when her mother became stricken with cancer and died, her father experienced deep depression, alcohol abuse and despair that he couldn't seem to come out of. She became his caretaker. I was able to demonstrate that with her weekly trips to his apartment, which she paid for, delivering groceries and taking care of him. The death of her mother was also instrumental in making Kristine a workaholic, a civil litigation lawyer who spent more time at work than anywhere else. It became a coping mechanism.
I had to develop Kristine's past before I began writing. Once you understand your characters experiences, their voice becomes clear to you. It not only adds to believability for the reader, but helps you as an author move the story forward.
What if you're writing about a character you cannot possibly understand, atleast not personally? It's still possible. It's required of every writer in this instance to do research. My book, Hollywood Giant, required this in immense detail. The book is written from two points of view, Alex, my Master, dominant and his submissive, Nadia Petra. Writing in Alex's point of view was a challenge. I read many non-fiction books written by men who had been living the lifestyle for decades. I read blogs and diaries (online). There were so many parts of Alex that I admired. The immense patience he had to practice and his ability to put aside his own emotion for the betterment of his submissive was something I cannot relate to, but I understood it. It was so far removed from me, that each time I wrote in his POV, I had to revisit those non-fiction books, just to get myself in that 'headspace'.
Know their experiences, childhood occurrences, goals, fears, favorite music, desires, flaws (both actual and perceived) as well as their physical attributes.
Describe Your Character Through Action
You've heard the term, show don't tell, as a writer more times than you could count no doubt. It's the best advice you'll ever receive. Lee Child, Stephen King and Joe Hill are all brilliant at defining characters through their actions. It's not just what a character does, but how they do it and how they speak. Think of Jack Reacher, his actions and his thoughts define him purely. You don't really need to know about his upbringing. You can glean much of the kind of person he is just by his interactions with situations and other characters. Never underestimate what you can show a reader through an action sequence or interaction with another character. Don't tell me your character is a loner and nervous. Show me how awkward he is around others and how he has certain ticks that demonstrate his discomfort and lack of confidence. It's much more memorable.
Characters Are Not Infallible
In an interview, Stephen King, said something along the lines of: you have to understand that the most vile human being can still love his grandmother. In other words, people are not one dimensional in life. Your characters should never be. The worst sort of person can indeed still love their grandmother. The best sort of people can have moments of misbehavior. Mother Teresa has noted moments of cruelty and even doubted her own faith. Make your characters real. They can't be ALL good, or ALL bad. Villains like Hannibal Lecter are memorable because, to spite the horrific things he does, his intellect, his refined tastes and philosophy is utterly interesting. Dare I say, enviable? How do you even get there? You get there through precise, thoughtful good writing.
Give Dialogue Its Due
Bad dialogue is an absolute killer. You can have an amazingly descriptive character that flops like a dead fish once he or she opens his mouth if you aren't careful with dialogue. Your characters dialogue is specific and should sound specific. Stephen King is an absolute master at this. If you study one writer, study him. Elmore Leonard is another writer who writes a slew of dialogue that is brilliantly crafted and believable. The most common mistake I see among new writers in this area is writing dialogue that has no place. When you go into your sister's house, someone you visit every week, do you open the door and say, Hello Sally. How are you today? No, you don't. Depending on your mood or the day you've had, you might just burst in and start talking right away, mid-sentence. Read your dialogue out loud, act it out as if it were a film. A more entertaining way to study dialogue is by watching great television and movies.
If you aren't currently skilled at the task, don't despair. Practice. You know the old saying, it makes things perfect, well, it definitely makes them better. Look at a dynamic picture of someone and write about them. Describe their personality, their past, their dreams, their fears, their grudges, their mistakes, the secrets they don't want anyone to know. Write it all down and look at it. Many writers will immediately begin scribbling down a story. I begin with my characters. Anne Rice said time and again, she begins with characters, the story comes later.
For a bit of practice inspiration, I offer this photo:
I write about: love, fantasy, hate, vampires, jealousy, lust, supernatural, murder, deceit, attraction. And sex.
I write what I like.