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Characters are not islands surrounded by the sea of the story and connected only by the occasional ships of need which the plot sends their way.
Characters are people with needs, desires, problems, issues, hobbies, good habits, and bad habits. Each of these creates an opportunity for common ground with another character; and this common ground creates relationships, tension, enemies, and allies. Characters have history, meaning, and purpose; and no character in a story should ever stand entirely alone.
If your characters are flat, if relationships seem empty, or if motivation seems unbelievable then it may be that your characters aren’t connecting in a meaningful way. They lack common ground. Improving a character may be as simple as determining how they’re connected to another character. There are countless scenarios which will create common ground for your characters, but these should get you thinking:
Needs and desires
- Do the characters have a need in common? Are they working together or competing?
- Does one character need what another has?
- Does one character want something from the other character? Will he or she give it up, or deny access to it?
- Is there tension between two characters because one is a Have and the other is a Have-not?
Problems and Issues
- Is a character causing problems for another character?
- Is a character fighting insecurities or issues because of how they were treated by another character?
- Are two characters facing the same struggle? Are they building each other up or tearing each other down?
- Can one character call on past struggles to mentor another character who is currently dealing with something similar?
Hobbies and Interests
- Do the characters share a hobby, love the same music, or watch the same films?
- Does one character like Country whereas the other character prefers Rock and Roll?
- Does one character have a hobby that annoys another character (leaving oil spills in a shared parking lot when they work on cars? Making too much noise while practicing with their band in the garage of a quiet suburban neighborhood?)
- Is a couple experiencing money problems because one of them is passionate about something expensive?
Good and Bad Habits
- Does one person impress another with good habits? Or do they annoy the other person with bad ones?
- Has a good habit become an obsession? How is the other character impacted?
- Do two friends feed off of each other’s bad habits? Or do they build each other up?
- Are one person’s strengths the other person’s weaknesses?
Places and Things can be characters without anthropomorphising them. Places have a history and unique characteristics. Things have history, and they gain meaning and purpose from the people who make them, own them, or use them. The above examples don’t apply as well to places and objects, but the key is to find the foundation for relationships. Whatever you do, make connections which matter.