Characters in a book are, by definition, fictional. The tricky part, though, is that they need to become real to both the writer and the reader or their story isn’t worth telling—or reading.
It takes me months to write a book. I spend hours at the computer with only my characters and my imagination for company. (Well, and my parakeets who think they are my official Muses!) Much of that time is spent in getting to know not just the hero and heroine but also the supporting cast or secondary characters. Even I wouldn’t want to spend that much time with these people if they came across as flat and lifeless.
Often there isn’t a lot of room on the page to go into a lot of detail about the secondary characters because the spotlight needs to be on the hero and heroine. Giving each of the characters something to distinguish him/her from all of the others helps make their personality pop on the page, making them memorable to the reader. This is especially important with the book is just one in a series and these characters may appear in more than one story.
I once wrote a western historical where a gambler named Cal and his friend Toby had been riding together for years. You could always tell when Toby wasn’t happy with Cal because he’d spit tobacco in the general direction of the gambler’s boots. The closer he came to hitting those boots, the madder Toby was. As disgusting as that image is, it made me really love Toby. It also made him memorable. One of Cal's habits was dealing cards because he found the repetitive motion soothing. It served as a reminder that he'd been supporting himself with his winnings since he was a young boy.
Then there was one of my villains who loved to make lists. Sure, lots of people make a list before going to the grocery story or perhaps to detail the things they need to get done. But for this character, the one list he took great pleasure in writing was made up of the names of the people he intended to kill and in what order they needed to die. This particular quirk showed he was very methodical and that made him dangerous.
Another series of mine centered around a group of warriors. Each had to have his own distinct personality. One had a habit of putting his feet on his boss’s desk and an unfortunate tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He also had a real talent for hacking into other people’s computer systems to play cyber-tag. What made him one of my readers’ favorite characters, though, was his fierce loyalty and courage.
In my new Snowberry Creek series, you’ll meet a physician’s assistant who has pink spiked hair. It’s an instant clue to the reader that Brandi is a little different. But regardless of her appearance, patients love her because of her kind heart.
Not all distinguishing characteristics have to be strange. The first books in Snowberry Creek center around three soldiers. All three have a strong love of country, courage, and loyalty to each other. That doesn't mean they care cookie cutter characters, indistinguishable except for superficial details like height or eye color. Instead, Nick is the leader, who takes his responsibilities very seriously. Spence has mad driving skills and loves driving right at the edge of crazy. Leif is the calm one, often plays referee between the other two, and has a great sense of humor.
With that in mind, Nick drives a pickup that is solid, but not flashy—the kind of truck that a contractor might drive. Leif drives a shiny, cherry-red pickup and worries a lot about nicks and scratches. Spence, on the other hand, goes tearing around on a Harley that he's owned since high school. Their personalities show up in their possessions. I love these guys, and I hope you will as well.
So take a minute to think about your favorite character in a series you've been reading. What is it about that person that made him/her stand out from the crowd? What drew you to him? I'm betting it's the details the author built into the story that makes that character three dimensional and real.