I'm going to discusses how to create engaging characters by understanding how readers respond emotionally, setting goals for them, and giving them compelling motivations. You might also want to read Engaging Characters, by Murray Smith where he sets out a comprehensive analysis of character, exploring the role of characters in our experience of narrative and fiction. Smith's analysis focuses on film, and also illuminates character in literature, opera, song, cartoons, new and social media.
One key is to create characters whose personalities complement one another and lead to personal change. It’s important to present your character on the opening pages of your story in many ways, including through their thoughts, motivations, and what they say. This will help pull readers into the story and keep them engaged. It’s also important that the characters have an emotional connection with readers by connecting with their heart, mind, and soul. This is no easy task and can seem daunting for someone starting out. The good news is that the more you work with the characters the easier it becomes to understand them.
To do this, a writer needs to create great character dynamics, evolve relationships and make sure that the characters are believable. Acting your characters out in the privacy of your own home can help you with this process. As you begin character development, it's important to remember that even minor characters should have a life of their own. This can be done by taking your characters in unexpected directions and giving them unique qualities that break your story apart. Often this is done by spotlighting a single character and giving them time to connect with the audience. You see this all the time in serialized media, but you can also do it effectively in a graphic novel or film.
Defining your character's motivations and goals can help you in creating their individual stories and get to know them better. Developing a strong character personality is key in getting the reader to connect with them, but beware the pitfall of common archetypes, stereotypes, and generic or token characters. It's important to give your characters a voice and to take agency within their own story, allowing them to make decisions that shape their future. Start your characters off with a backstory that gives insight into who they are and how they might react in certain situations. Sometimes it is best to keep that backstory to yourself and tease it out slowly across the story - almost like putting together pieces of a puzzle. As an example think about Sheriff Bell's dark secret in No Country for Old Men.
When he was in the war, he got a medal. But he only got a medal because he survived… and all his friends died. He's always carried a feeling of guilt about this, until he finally decides to tell his wife his secret to absolve himself.
To make them engaging, you must also change their inner reality as the story progresses - or even in act one where we meet the character in distress. This can be done through challenges and obstacles they face that force them to grow and change. I can't stress growth and change enough, it is a payoff for the audience and a great way for them to be invested in the story. It is important to feel your character when you write; give them a life beyond the story by understanding their needs and desires even if they're not in line with your world view. Crafting interesting characters with compelling goals will reel in the reader to their story.
When differentiating one character from another, it is important to give them traits that make them stand out. A classic and perfect example of this is the Star Trek dynamic. Kirk representing courage, Spock representing logic, and Bones handling emotion. When scratch building your main character, give them a specific purpose or goal in the story. Create your character by giving them personal history and defining characteristics that will make readers relate to them. It also helps to give your characters a tag or a unique gesture of sorts that helps define their personality. As you are plotting tighter, be sure to set up your character's goals and troubles for the reader to follow through the story. Some characters are heroic because they never give up, even when they fail. This is very common in superhero or adventure stories. In the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones repeatedly fails time and time again as the audience roots for him to succeed. This is a technique I used very purposefully in Billy The Kit.
One of the most important steps in writing engaging characters is to develop them organically. Write scenes that show their thoughts and feelings, as well as their physical actions. By giving your characters experiences - ones they share with the audience in real time, you can strengthen your story and create engaging, compelling characters. Knowing craft skills such as scene structure, dialogue, and point of view are important for creating a character with depth. You need to know your character inside out so that you can write realistic scenes in which they react naturally to events in the story, be it sadness or happiness or surprise. For instance, in Standstill, I deliberately wrote Mason as a good person trapped in a bad situation. Mason remained unwavering in his hope for the future while other characters allowed the bad situations to bring out the worst in them. The best gauge you have if a character is engaging is if you are personally invested in them. That will translate.