Here are more notes on building realistic characters, adapted from my “Be Cruel to Your Characters” workshop.
• Heroes should be realistic, complex and individual. Make sure your heroes have flaws.
• Heroes should have universal traits (emotions and motives). Readers should identify/sympathize to some extent, so they’ll forgive the main character for their mistakes.
• Your hero should have the qualities needed to realistically overcome the challenge. Thus, the challenges should be hard enough to be dramatic (we must believe the hero could fail), yet not so great that no real person could solve them.
• In general, the protagonist should grow and change in the course of the story. She should make errors, and learn something. Heroes need both inner and outer challenges.
• Protagonists should be active, not passive. They should take risks and responsibility. They may be at least partly responsible for their own problems. They should have to sacrifice something in order to succeed (pride, safety, financial security).
• Heroes may be willing or unwilling. They may be outcasts, cynics, loners, wounded or reluctant. But at some point they should commit to the challenge. (Harrison Ford often plays this kind of character.) In the The Ghost on the Stairs (Haunted (Aladdin)) Jon just wants to be an ordinary kid, but his sister keeps dragging him into trouble as she tries to help the ghosts. In each book, he has to find his reasons for supporting her.
• Your hero’s rewards should be proportionate to the challenges.
• Villains should also be well-rounded. A villain with good qualities and understandable motives creates a more subtle and complex story. Why is the villain nasty? Are they actually evil, or ignorant, or do their goals just conflict with your hero’s?
• Other major characters also need strengths and weaknesses. Think about their motives, their good qualities and their flaws. All characters should have a mix of traits, good and bad, sometimes working against each other. (In The Well of Sacrifice the main character's brother is so dedicated and heroic that he doesn't question authority, leading to his betrayal by the high priest.). Even the people you love have flaws and irritating quirks. So should your characters.
• Think of unusual/contradictory qualities. Maybe your tough bully loves animals. Twist the stereotypes. Instead of a sweet, white-haired grandmother who comforts her grandkids with home-baked cookies, how about a grandmother who plays racquetball, is running for mayor, and comforts her grandkids with giant ice cream sundaes at the local diner?
People your story with realistic characters, and you'll bring that world to life. So have fun getting to know the characters you create!