“A writer begins by breathing life into his characters. But if you are very lucky, they breathe life into you”
~ Caryl Phillips

What we remember most about the stories we love are the characters that inhabit them. We remember Emma Bovary, Werner Pfennig, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, Holly Golightly, and Trudi Montag. We might admire scintillating prose and novel ideas. But it is character that ultimately wins us over and changes us.

Characters are at the heart of fiction. They drive a story, carrying the reader from the first page to the last. Substantial, authentic and dimensional, characters real enough to cast shadows, allow the reader to fall into the story. Real life recedes and the fictional world takes over.

However much we differ from them superficially, finely wrought and “real” fictional characters embody the universality of the human condition. They tell us more about ourselves – things we’d happily admit – or things we would rather keep buried, away from prying eyes.

Though Ifemelu, the protagonist in Americanah, is poles apart from me – our backgrounds, our ages, our experiences could not be more different – and yet so often while reading the book, I paused, drew in my breath sharply and thought, “How come she was thinking my thought?” Or “I thought that flight of fancy was unique only to me.” It was both uncanny and comforting to see glimmers of my interior life in Ifemelu’s.

What do they want?

To be compelling, a fictional character has to desire something. Desire is a driving force of human nature and, applied to characters, it thrusts a story forward. A character’s desire can be huge, looming, all encompassing, even intoxicating. He might seek to avenge a child’s death, or aspire to climb the tallest mountain on every continent. His desire could be more modest: to read a book a week until he is no longer able to, or to coax the magnolia in the garden to life and to a profusion of sweet smelling flowers.

Life is not black and white. Each of us is saint and sinner.  Russell Baker’s writing teacher once asked his students: “Don’t you think it would make your tough guys a little more interesting to the reader if once in a while you had one bend down to smell a rose?”

“We want to know more about people who fail,” says Susan Shaughnessy. “We care about people who are scared, who act foolishly, who are tricked by their vanity and trapped by their desires… Flawed characters are the unforgettable ones.” The handsome, ageing smuggler is not all swagger, bluff and sleaze. It is not enough to plant him in Goa, Malibu or Mallorca and to surround him with gun-toting thugs and a bevy of glamorous girlfriends.

Slip in the fact that he sings old Bollywood songs at a shelter for the elderly. He is translating Don Quixote into Hindi (quite the quixotic endeavour). He has poured his heart and soul into it and it is finally all coming together. On evenings, when he’s alone with his thoughts, he calls his sister’s last known number.

Contrasting traits make a character authentic, as shown by Connie’s behavior in Joyce Carol Oates’s Where are You Going, Where Have You Been? Connie’s laugh was “cynical and drawling at home – ‘Ha, ha, very funny’ – but high-pitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms of her bracelet.”

Just as the main character’s desire drives the story, the change he undergoes is often the story’s culmination. The potential for change in the character is what makes him unpredictable and therefore interesting. And as the central character changes, the reader too will be changed if he is allowed to share in the humanity of the character.

Who are they?

Where do the characters come from? Look around you, and into your memory and mind. Inspiration for characters is everywhere. The man seated at the coffee shop, for instance. He is expensively dressed; he has the bearing of a dancer. What impossibly long eyelashes, the envy of every girl. A tiny diamond glints in his ear, too small to be ostentatious.

He turns the band on his finger, not his ring finger. He pulls it off and leaves it on the table. He snaps his finger at the waiter, an elderly man, wearing a turban that covers his ears. When the waiter doesn’t turn around in a split second, the almost-shout betrays the impatience of a man used to getting his way. The snap and petulance turn you off. But you see potential for a character who can take you by surprise.

The girl on the bench is sad, beyond sad. There are no tears, but the heave of her shoulders and the unseeing gaze say it all. What if? You think. What if you were to go up to her and touch her lightly on the arm? What would she tell you? What is her story?

Get to know your characters, even the unpleasant ones you wouldn’t care to befriend in real life. Put them all on a stage and see what happens, Put them in unusual situations and see how they react. How would they behave in a quarrel? While fleshing out your characters, consider their appearance. What are their names?

An aside about names:  Elmore Leonard believes that “names are terribly important. I spend forever coming up with names. Sometimes a character doesn’t work until I change his name. In Bandits, Frank Matusi didn’t work.  I changed him to Jack Delaney and suddenly he opened up.”

Think about where and how they grew up, how they loved and lost. What are their hopes and aspirations, their dreams, fears and secrets? Dig deeper: Ask unconventional questions. What keeps her up at night? What books lie on her bedside table? Your character is cleaning out a desk drawer. What does she take out and clasp to her heart? Of course, you will know how old your character is. Maybe even how old she looks. Ask how old she feels. How old does she want to be?

You won’t use all the telling details you’ve gathered, but it will help you flesh out your characters in a believable way. Identify a handful of gems and mine them. Use only the gems to fill in the character. Description of characters, Stephen King believes, begins in the writer’s imagination and finishes in the reader’s.

What do they do?

Action reveals character like nothing else, especially the actions of a character in a time of crisis. Characters are also revealed by their speech. Listen to Daisy’s giddy tone in The Great Gatsby: “I’ll tell you a family secret,” she whispered enthusiastically. “It’s about the butler’s nose. Do you want to hear about the butler’s nose?” A word about voice from Anne Lamott: “Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you.”

You can draw conclusions about a character from her appearance. Not just by her height, and weight and the colour of her eyes, but by the facial tic, that begins as a smile and ends as a grimace. Fiction allows you access into a character’s innermost thoughts, her most intimate nature, things she would probably not reveal willingly to anyone. Michael Ondaatje rarely describes his characters externally; he shows them to us “from the inside out.”

A word of advice from the master of storytelling, Anton Chekov: “When you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be colder – it gives their grief, as it were, a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. As it is, your heroes weep and you sigh. Yes, you must be cold.”

It’s a subtle art, this storytelling; there are laws of perspective, of light and shade, of the tangible and the ethereal, just as in music and painting. Think of yourself – the writer – as a composer or painter who blends and unites all the elements of storytelling into a harmonious or deliberately discordant whole.

Next: How to end your story

A lifelong reader and writer, Debika Lahiri has written a novel. She conducts nature walks in Delhi's gardens and parks.