This post, by Chuck Wendig, originally appeared on his terribleminds site on 1/13/14. Note that it may contain strong language.
1. A Personality
This seems rather obvious, sure — in a way it’s like saying, “What makes a really good tree is that it has an essential treeness” — but just the same, it bears mentioning. Because some characters read like cardboard. They’re like white crayon on white paper. Sure, the characters run around and they do shit and say shit but none of it has anything to do with character and has everything to do with plot — as if the characters are just another mechanism to get to the next action sequence, the next plot point, the next frazza wazza wuzza buzza whatever. Point is: your character needs a personality, and the rest of this list should help you get there.
The character should run an advertising agency. *is handed a note* Oh! Oh. I mean, The character should belong to the FBI and– *gets another note* JESUS CHRIST WITH THE NOTES, PEOPLE. But fine, yes, okay, I get it now. Agency means that the character is active, not passive. The character makes decisions and is attempting to control her own destiny as an independent operator within the story. She is not a leaf in the stream but rather the rock that breaks the river. *receives one more note* Oh, thank you, what a wonderful note! I do agree my beard is sexy, yes. I know! So rich! So full! So shiny. I oil it with secretions from squeezed ermine scent glands which also lends it that musky zing that sort of… crawls up your nose. *flicks beard sweat at you*
Characters want things. They need things. They are motivated by these desires and requirements and they spend an entire story trying to fulfill them. That’s one of the base level components of a story: a character acts in service to his motivations but obstacles (frequently other characters) stand in his way. We need to know what impels a character. What are her motives? If we don’t know or cannot parse those motivations, her role in the story is alien to us.
Everybody’s afraid of something. Death. Taxes. Bees. Dogs. Love. Carnival workers. Ocelots. (I am afraid of the number 34 and the color “puce.”) Characters suffer from their own personal fears relevant to the story at hand. Characters without fear are basically robots who use their pneumatic doom-claws to puncture any sense of engagement and belief we have in the story you’ve created. The great thing about being a storyteller isn’t just giving characters fear — it’s ensuring that that their fears will arise and be present in the tale at hand. You shall be cruel. This cruelty shall be great fun and a veritable giggle-fest because storytellers are dicks.
Also see Chuck Wendig’s The Zero-Fuckery Guide To Kick-Ass Characters, from the same site.