It’s perfectly possible for a character to be well-crafted, but painfully boring on the page.
They may be nicely drawn. (Sal had wispy blond hair, knotted up in a bun with a mechanical pencil, wire-frame glasses sitting askew on her nose, and a Metallica sticker on her phone case.)
They may even have a clear emotional drive, with relevant backstory. (Two years ago, Sal’s mother vanished, and while everyone (including her abusive father) tells her she ran off on her own, Sal refuses to believe it. Instead, she’s convinced her mother was kidnapped. Possibly even murdered.)
But if your character acts by the numbers, even if everything else is working, they’ll still come across as boring.
Keep your readers on their toes.
My favorite fix is this: When your character is confronted with an emotional situation or decision, ask yourself, “What’s the most surprising and interesting thing they could do right now that would still make sense for their character?”
For example, let’s say Sal (above) has kept a close eye on news headlines, waiting to hear about a body found in the woods, or the river, or somewhere in her county, with a description that matches her mother’s. She wants closure, and she wants to make sure the person who took her mother gets caught and punished.
But then, while investigating a headline from a town that’s three hours away (“Woman Found Dead at Burrow Creek”), a stranger tells Sal that she looks a lot like someone they know — that there’s someone in town, alive, who fits her mother’s description.
What does Sal do?
It would make a lot of sense for Sal to grab that stranger’s hand, ask more questions, and get her potential-mother’s address. Then she and her friend Ricky would drive off in his Oldsmobile to see if it really is her mom. And if it is, Sal will confront her and demand an explanation.
But that’s the sort of reaction you’d expect.
So. What would be more surprising?
How about this: Sal ignores the stranger. The stranger tries to tell her the truth, that she has a mother who’s alive and well, here in town, but Sal refuses to listen and walks away. Only Ricky stays behind to get more information — and then Ricky spends the rest of the evening trying to convince Sal to check out the address with him, while Sal refuses and plots how to get past the yellow tape where the police found the body.
That’s a bit more fun, isn’t it?
Situation 2 works better for a couple reasons. First, it’s surprising. We’d expect Sal to want to hear that her mother was alive and well, but instead, she seems completely adamant about not believing it. That surprise keeps us on our toes and glued to the page.
Second, Sal’s reaction, while unexpected, stems from a deeper truth about her character. Sal has abandonment issues, and she can’t believe her mother is alive and well, because if that’s true, then her mother chose to abandon her with an abusive father, without ever trying to get in touch. Sal refuses to believe that, because believing that would kill her.
That’s the key to bringing your characters to captivating life on the page: Surprise us with their actions, while making sure those actions stem from their core emotional drives. Your readers’ reaction should be, “I never would have guessed Sal would do that, but it makes so much sense!”
That last part, really, is the kicker. After all, anybody can write a character who’s surprising and inconsistent. It’s much harder to write a character who’s surprising and believable.
But it’s what we gotta do. And hey. I believe you can do it.
So good luck! And good writing.