Create interesting characters with relatable conflicts. That’s the basic advice I’ve heard or read from most podcasts and websites. It seems simple enough. So when I created a character for my first book and gave him all the qualities for an interesting character (citizen of the empire, poor son of a baker, can use magic, awakens in a slave-village and helps start a revolution to overthrow the empire he once loved) I was surprised that the feedback from my friends was that he was anything but interesting. The vanilla of vanilla. I argued his character, pointing out how relatable his conflict was to almost everyone with a heartbeat and the resounding response was, “Yeah, we all agree that the character’s background is interesting. We’re just saying that he isn’t interesting.”
So…what makes characters interesting? I think it’s the same things that make people interesting. It’s their quiddity—what makes them them. Like many kids, my youngest does well in school, has won academic awards, made a game-winning catch in baseball, etc. On paper, he looks like any other sixth-grader. He can also be stubborn and ornery, especially if he’s given an ultimatum and is one of the most loving and considerate kids I’ve ever known. Because of that, his reactions to situations (e.g., when he sees an injured bird) are far different than those of his brothers, and that is what makes him interesting. All characters fall into some archetype or stock character. Harry Potter is a mixture of Cinderella and Little Orphan Annie, which is hardly unique; however, how he reacts to situations is very ‘Harry Potter’, just as how Ron reacts is very ‘Ron Wesley’. Hermione feels the need to prove not only that a mudblood can do what pure-bloods can do but she can do it better, so of course she is going to raise her hand again, eager to respond.
We can often conflate ‘interesting’ with ‘exciting’; however, I find a truer connection between ‘interesting’ and ‘unique’. What makes them unique is what makes them interesting. A character that is boring can be interesting if ‘being boring’ is their quiddity. How a boring character reacts to situations can provide comic relief or nail-biting conflict as the character watches the same movie for the thousandth time instead of taking lunch to the protagonist who is in a fight for his life…
Your characters’ backgrounds are only half of what makes them interesting. They provide the foundation to build upon, which will determine how they react to any given scenario; how they react will make them interesting. Just make sure that your characters stay true to themselves. Let them react how they would react, not the way you want them to react. Whenever Ron is in a scene, the reader knows he’s going to do something clumsy or stick his foot in his mouth, and the anticipation leads to a great payoff every time he does something very ‘Ron Weasley’. It’s both satisfying and comforting for readers to think, “Typical Ron”, and it would be just as jarring for the readers to go through an entire chapter without Ron doing something very ‘Ron Weasley’.
When we think of interesting characters, it’s natural for us to think exciting, extravagant, Batman! But strong, memorable characters (Ron Weasley, Samwise Gamgee, Uncle Iroh) don’t always wear capes. Interesting characters are interesting because they are true to themselves.