Updated: Jan 20
If you're writing a fantasy story, you probably have some influence from your favorite stories. You remember those stories for their interesting plots, unique worlds, but more importantly, for their larger-than-life characters. Characters drive good stories, and relatable characters are memorable characters.
Fantasy characters are people
When you read your favorite fantasy, you may recognize that the characters you gravitate towards are people like you. They share similar beliefs, motivations, or struggles. For example, some of my favorite fantasy characters are Aragorn from LOTR, Logan Gyre from Night Angel Trilogy, and Ned Stark from ASOIAF. Why? Because these men were put in extraordinary situations and always tried to do the right thing. I gravitated to their sense of honor, duty, and honesty.
How to make fantasy characters memorable
So, you want to make your characters more memorable. But how? First and foremost, I'd recommend starting with a deep-dive into each character to discover their motivations, beliefs, and other unique attributes. Here are some steps you can follow to make more memorable fantasy characters:
1. Identify their character traits, both good and bad
Character traits are often what sets a character apart from others. For example, you might have a character who's always honest and one who is always dishonest, which in itself can create unique tension and story arcs. When you're building a character profile, consider the good and bad traits of your characters.
What are their positive character traits? Examples include:
Balance the positive with some negative traits, like these:
These traits help you build a believable personality for each character, and help give context for the decisions each character makes in the story. If a character is dishonest, a reader might expect them to decide to steal, so it feels realistic and more like an actual person, which can be far more immersive.
2. Create a backstory that aligns with their personality and traits
Once you understand your characters' most important traits, you can develop a backstory that shows why they developed those traits. A backstory tells so much more about a character than simply where they were born or where they came from. The backstory is your guide to understanding a character's personal motivations, goals, and beliefs.
For example, if you have a character who was raised in poverty, it might make sense that one of their traits is frugality or resourcefulness. If you have a character from an abusive childhood, they might have mental health issues or be mistrusting of people. Think about each positive and negative trait your characters have, then determine where in their backstory they might have developed those traits.
Abbie Emmons, a popular writing YouTuber and one of my favorite YouTubers, has a guide you can follow here:
3. Pull inspiration from yourself or people you know
One of the easiest ways to build characters (in my opinion) is to pull inspiration from the people around you. This can be parents, friends, colleagues, or even enemies. What is it about your greatest enemy that gets under your skin so much? What is it about your parents, friends, or significant other that you absolutely adore? Build your characters on the foundation of people you already know to give them an extra layer of complexity and believability for your readers.
For example, maybe you have a parent who's incredibly supportive and nurturing, but often nags or shows up at inappropriate times. You could easily include these positive and negative traits in a fantasy character to make them relatable. Readers might think, "Hey, my mom does that, too!"
4. Don't shy away from their flaws
We often remember characters for their incredible perseverance and other noble traits, but I believe what truly makes a character memorable is their flaws. Flaws are what highlight the best part of us and give such incredible value to our strengths as people, and can do so with for your characters, too. As Brandon Sanderson once said about magic, "Limitations are more interesting than powers." I completely agree with this, and I think it applies to characters, too. Limitations show us how our characters navigate the world with their flaws and allow them opportunities for growth and redemption.
When you're developing your fantasy characters, focus on building believable flaws along with noble traits. Typically, the advice is to give your character one main flaw that they overcome (or not) as part of their primary story arc, but you don't have to stop at one. I usually word this as the character's internal conflict, or what's going on in their mind that's keeping them from reaching their goals. This might be a struggle around feeling unworthy, which is a common trope we often see in fantasy characters.
5. Develop their unique internal and external voices
Sometimes, I find that authors don't develop their characters' voices enough, and it starts to sound like the narrator's voice for each character. I think it's important to develop each characters' external and internal voices, if we're privy to their thoughts. This can help make them more believable and unique from the other members of your cast. In fantasy, this can be incredibly simple. Maybe your elves speak in a more proper way, or your orcs have a guttural way of speaking that makes their words seem garbled. Or, maybe the orcs have the proper speaking and the elves sound like guttural beasts. There's a lot more room to play with different voices in fantasy, because essentially, anything goes.
I typically write down three to four sentences in my character profile of both internal and external dialogue for each character, so I can have a frame of reference when I'm building dialogue between my characters. I also make note of any special sounds, gestures, or other communication methods they use. For example, one of my main characters always rubs his beard when he's thinking, which no other character does. He also speaks in a proper way because of his education and status, but his internal monologue is more casual.
Brandon Sanderson has an awesome (and free) complete writing series on YouTube that covers a lot of this information and more. Check it out here:
Characters are what make stories memorable, and creating characters your readers relate to can be simple if you put a lot of initial effort into building them. A character profile is a great place to start, and you don't even need any extra tools to do it. Start with a blank page and include things like motivations, goals, character traits, name, and other info. Then, as your story develops, you can add or subtract things from each profile. Or, you can use writing software like Campfire to build profiles with photos in a more organized way.
I hope this article was helpful to you, and happy writing!