Without great characters, even the cleverest story is like a pretty car with no engine.
At last, we come to the end of this extended inquiry into what constitutes good writing in fiction. Though we come to it last, the topic of character is far and away the most important consideration for most stories. Stories live and die by their characters. Without a compelling cast of characters, even the most fascinating events are simply that...events. It's the characters that connect readers with the events of the story. Without them, there is nothing of lasting import, nothing more than an anecdote that will soon be forgotten.
What about plot-driven stories?
I'm glad you asked. Yes, there are stories that are carried by the events more than the characters, but let me ask you—how many of the books you list amongst your favorites work that way? I may be projecting, but I think that most of the plot driven books, while fascinating, don't etch as deeply into people's memory. We're human. We need access points to get into the story, people to care about. If the story introduces terrible danger and hardship, these are but empty echoes and shadows on the wall if we don't have some feeling for the characters. All the plot devices, all the pathos and joy in a story—all of these qualities we try to evoke are filtered through the characters. The characters serve as the binding agent that allows our other techniques to succeed.
So, then, if we agree that we need great characters to get our story to function at a high level, we'll need to move forward and figure out what makes a character great. We'll need to make generalizations, all of which will be contradicted by some famous example or another. These are troubled waters. Perhaps the best thing to keep in mind is that, while characters don't have to conform to every one of these directives, they should probably conform to at least some of them.
Great characters are identifiable.
When introducing a character, a reader should be able to picture them. The details you choose to describe, while they may be sparse, must give a clear picture of who this person is. If you're really doing your job well, some readers will say, “I knew a guy just like that when I lived in Duluth!”
Now, a great character is an effective character, not necessarily an admirable one. There are great characters who are lamentable slobs, sinister brigands, or spine-shivering lunatics. Great characterization is purely a function of making the reader “feel” that character. If the reader reviles a villain character, so much the better. Just be sure that you're having your desired effect, and not the opposite. It's bad if you hope they'll adore your hardboiled detective, but they just think he's a huge moron.
Great characters have it tough.
Compelling characters live in difficult circumstances. They have to make choices we wouldn't want to make. They have to make sacrifices we hope we won't have to. They bear the scars of a hard life. Maybe they've accomplished a lot, but that's not to say they haven't had to pay for their glory in some way.
If a character is comfortable, feeling safe, and wanting for nothing in the world, there's not much of a story there. Great characters need to be in trouble. They need to be driven, to strive for something that seems out of reach. Perhaps they lament that they'll never be able to achieve that goal they swore to reach. If your characters think they've got it made, you'd better take steps to show them otherwise as the story progresses. You'd better keep them sweating until the story ends, or your story will falter. Readers know it's the end of the story when the dust clears and the character has either succeeded or failed. Don't surrender to your better angels and let your characters have it too easy. Only hard-fought victories and tragic failures need apply.
Great characters are active.
Characters that sit and wait for something to happen to them aren't very engaging. In general, characters that keep trying, even if they do the wrong thing, are more interesting than those who sit on their hands. Characters that spend chapter after chapter navel-gazing don't help the whole dramatic structure of the story. Unless one of the primary struggles of the story is that of the character seizing initiative after months or years of hesitation, you'll be better off with an active character. An active character doesn't wait for the world to do something to him, he goes and does something. Let your characters be decisive. Put them under pressure, so that they don't always have the luxury to sit back and think about their next move.
Great characters are fallible.
A hard lesson to learn, this one. When many of us start writing, we tend to make our main characters idealized versions of ourselves. They're what we wish we could be, what we always dreamed of being. Consequently, we make them into little cult objects, and it's hard for us to get our heads around these characters making huge blunders. We'll have to be mature, however. Often, a huge mistake on the main character's part is a great plot device. Not only that, the character seems more real, more earthy once they've gotten down into the big, muddy river with the rest of us.
Don't have characters make absurd mistakes or act like morons (unless that's their character), but allow them to make understandable mistakes. If they have the wrong impression of what's going on, sometimes it's okay to let them act on that bad information. Remember that the crux of a story is change, and nothing brings about changes like a catastrophic error. Let the characters play with fire, and let 'em get burned.
Great characters have “that one thing”.
What do I mean by this? I mean that a great character has some skill or attribute that makes her stand out from the rest. Maybe she's sort of average in other endeavors, but when it comes to “that one thing”, she's really amazing. Maybe it's smarts, or a special skill, or being tremendously driven to succeed...it could be anything. Whatever that signature element of the character is, everyone who reads about her will agree that, yes, she was sure amazing at that pursuit. This can be traced back to the hero myths of the ancient days. Achilles was nearly invulnerable. Hercules was the strongest of the strong. Beowulf had such an iron grasp that he was able to tear Grendel's arm from its socket. Your character doesn't need to have something so tangible as super strength or skin like iron, but characters with something special about them tend to work better.
But the balances of fate must be heeded.
The heroes of legend all had that one, ideal quality. They were often counterbalanced by some tragic failure. Sure, Achilles was a bad dude on the battlefield, but he wasn't anyone's idea of a nice guy. He was sullen and morose, filled with spite. The spot on his heel where he could be harmed is the prosaic “flaw”, but it could be said that his greater flaw was in his nature—that unreasoning rage that drove him to the brink of madness. For all his martial power, he was not a happy or well-adjusted guy. Otherwise, he'd have surely been king, not Agamemnon.
It's not required that all your characters have a fatal flaw, but they surely will have some downfalls. Maybe they're lazy when things seem safe. Maybe they have some compulsion they can't control. It's possible that they can't be trusted for some reason. They may know very well that these flaws exist, and hope to change them. Some characters may be unaware of the impact their flaws have on other people.
Perhaps the most interesting solution is to make the same element that makes them special be the element in their makeup that causes them the most grief. This creates an innate conundrum, and can make for a character who continues to wrestle between her strength and her folly, which are doomed to be forever intertwined.
Great characters are detailed.
When constructing characters, we don't necessarily have to know that their middle name is Clyde, or that they got a detention for shouting at Sally-Anne when they were in fourth grade. We don't need to know if they're still mad at their brother, Bill, for some obscure incident that involved firecrackers and a toy truck. We don't even need to know if their Senior Prom was a huge disappointment. Maybe we do know these things, but unless it's an element of the story at hand, it's only a tool to deepen our understanding about how that character approaches the world.
What do we need to know? For one, we need to know what motivates the character. Why does she act the way she does? How does she react to the stresses put on her during the story? To whom does she turn when things get out of hand...or doesn't she have anyone to turn to?
We have to understand how the character got to the place we find them. Is this where they wanted to be? Is there some great, unfulfilled dream in their past? Are they damaged goods? What are they hoping for? Have they abandoned hope? Is there some inner conflict they've never settled?
If, in the midst of your story, you find that you can't figure out what a character would do, you probably don't know the answer to some of the questions above. Remember that it's not just the plot points you have to understand. It's just as likely that a weak grasp on your character's motivations will shoot you down. When you really know your character, the writing process should become intuitive. You'll be in the character's head, thinking her thoughts. What she says and does should be as clear to you as what you would do in the same situation. Perhaps clearer, because even detailed characters are straightforward compared to the genuine article.
The details of a character, even if they never appear in the text of a story, can help you grasp deeper meanings, capitalize on inner turmoil, and generally present a much more realistic character. These detailed, understandable characters will help your story stay on track. You'll know them well enough that, should one of your plot points be flawed, you'll feel it. You'll think, “This character would never say this, never do that.” With each great character, you come closer to the possibility of writing a great story.
Great characters make sense.
When you're creating a character, make sure that you've put him together in a way that allows them to logically exist in your setting. There must be a reasonable explanation for their skills, their personality, and their life. If they're tragically flawed, why? If they're in a position of power, why? If they're the world's greatest fencer, why? If any of the questions you could ask about your character take a long-winded and complex argument to explain, maybe your character doesn't make sense. Skills come from somewhere. Characters have to be able to eat, work, travel...etc..
Now, readers will often let you gloss over some tedious elements of a story, but they will, in the end, catch you if you're not thinking a character through and making sure that they have the tools to make it in their world.
Alternately, if you plop skills and advantages on a character in heaping measures, you'll have to explain where they got these skills. If your character is a desk clerk at a business, readers will want some manner of explanation if you later reveal that he's also an arch-ninja. If no good explanation is forthcoming, they'll start looking at your story as hokum. Trust me, you don't want that.
I'm sure that there are many elements in building a character that I didn't cover here. While I'd love to say that I had all the answers, I don't. I've gathered my paltry wisdom here and I hope that some of it helps you with your writing.
As with all inquiries into a topic such as writing, this one is far from encyclopedic. I will end our series of good writing articles here, nonetheless. As the mood strikes, I'll expound with a fool's vigor about other elements of the writing craft, but for now, this journey is at an end. For now, thanks to all of you who took the time to read these articles, and good luck to you.