Humans love humans.
Humans love to read about human problems, human solutions, human stories. While a story may happen to be about a high-power attorney, a grandmother, a soldier, or a struggling student, it should first and foremost be about a human. Even if you write
fantasy and your characters aren’t exactly human, they should be human enough that we can empathize with them.
As a reader, I don’t care about that tough cop’s problems or heroic deeds unless he’s accessible as a person. He needs to be a human first, a cop second. What does he feel, fear, love, worry about? How does he show his humanity?
This is where characterization comes in. It’s in the details: his mannerisms, his dialogue, his internal thought process.
As a human, how do you read the emotions of other humans without them telling you how they feel? These are the details that need to be featured in your writing. What does it tell you when someone raises their eyebrows or wrinkles their nose? Why does someone roll their shoulders, rub their nose, shuffle their feet? We communicate so much with our body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, and just one little detail can tell a reader enough to make a character come to life. A tense jaw, narrowed eyes, a deep breath, a wrinkled brow, wide eyes, hands in pockets, a slap on the back, elbow nudge, lopsided smile, pursed lips, sidelong glance, ducked head, or clenched fists will send a more human message than naming the emotion (though obviously that’s appropriate in some cases). We love reading into people’s expressions and movements, into their words and tone of voice. Give your readers the benefit of the doubt and let them figure it out.
Show me that he’s mad–don’t just tell me. Show me she’s embarrassed–don’t just tell me. Show me that even though he’s a seasoned soldier, the sight of a suffering child breaks his heart (Does his throat get tight? Does he clench his jaw?). Make me love your characters, or love to hate them. And remember that nobody is all good or all bad. If you don’t know your characters yet–what makes them tick–figure it out. Write a scene from their point of view. Have an imaginary interview with them. Delve into their past. When did she become so selfish, and what are her redeeming qualities? How did he get so shy, and when does he manage to move past it? Most of these exercises won’t go into your final manuscript, but they will be well worth writing to deepen your own understanding of the underlying tension in your characters and story.
Let your characters reveal a little at a time about who they are through what they say and how they say it. We love characters who have a little bit of uncertainty in their voice at times, who laugh at themselves, who tease, who share enough to make you interested but not so much to be sappy. Don’t let them tell their whole life stories, but enough detail to bring them to life. Dialogue is an art form, a balancing act between sounding realistic without being too true to life (no perfect speeches, but no rambling). Use awkward pauses to your advantage, but don’t let awkwardness dominate your dialogue. Let a character say something perfectly heartbreaking and succinct one moment, but not every exchange needs to feature a profound drop-the-mic moment.
Real life and real people are a mix of messy intentions and emotions. Let your characters be real.