Characters can make or break your fiction. It’s imperative that you people your story world with characters who feel real. Cardboard characters used merely to push your plot along will leave readers feeling empty. Satisfying fiction is filled with characters that readers believe could be their next-door neighbors. The more realistic, the better.
Of course, you want readers to have a physical sense of your characters. You can include their hair color, eye color, physical stature, and even skin tone. Filling out a character description sheet will help you keep track of your character's physical features. Another way to do this is to thumb through a magazine or surf websites until you find a model that most closely resembles the character in your mind. You can then refer back to this image to make sure your physical descriptions are consistent throughout your story.
Remember, though, that the physical descriptions only scratch the surface of your characters—don’t stop there. To effectively create compelling characters you have to dig deeper.
One of the best ways to learn more about your character is to interview her. Ask her questions and listen to her answers. You might be surprised what you learn. Ask her where she grew up, if she was happy as a child, which parent she was closest to and why, and if anything traumatic happened during her childhood. Interview her about school and ask which classes she liked best/least and why. Ask about her activities in high school, friends, and those she didn’t like and why. Did she go to college? Marry young? Have children? Join the Army? Fight for a cause? Go into business? Spend too much money? The more questions you ask, the deeper you’ll dive into her psyche. In order to fully understand a character’s motivations, you have to know why she’s at the point she’s at when your story begins.
Once you understand her deepest desires and the motivations that have resulted from her life’s experiences, you’ll need to show that in your writing. Show the reader how an incident in high school changed her life and made her want to join the Peace Corps. Or, show how certain friends influenced her to make some bad decisions in college and she ended up dropping out and is now focused on getting her education despite any obstacles. You could show how your character witnessed a brutal attack and is now afraid of everything and everyone. You need to show the reader that you know your characters, especially the main character.
Even if you write fantasy or science fiction, you need to create characters that readers believe could be realistic given the parameters of their world. As a writer, you’re asking readers to suspend their disbelief and enter into a world you’ve created for them. They’ll be much more likely to believe your story if you’ve populated it with characters they can believe are real.
Realistic characters will deepen your story and will pull readers into the world you’ve formed.