You cannot write a good book without good characters. Compelling characters drive the plot of any novel, even those which are “plot-driven.” Because even in the midst of an alien invasion, you won’t really care about what happens unless you care about who it all happens to.
The thing about a novel is, a novel has no budget. It’s not like a Hollywood blockbuster that must use a set amount of funds. Well, perhaps people need budgets for marketing, but in plot terms, a writer can do whatever they’d like. The same stands true for characters.
The novel is a unique art form in that you can make whatever you’d like happen– in music, in films, the creators do not carry that same freedom. But to mold characters fully formed– realistic with flaws and contradictions and wide ranges of emotions– that’s a quite difficult task.
If a character can make you both laugh and cry, that may well be the gauge of how well you can relate to him or her. Relating to readers, however, relies on more than what most authors surmise. Many authors believe that by attributing quirky traits to characters, it helps their characters seem unique. That’s not true, though, unless this characteristic will play a crucial part in the story.
For example, in Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, the narrator is missing the bottom half of her face. She’s an ex-model. In this way, a characteristic is more than just a characteristic, but an important plot point. This contradiction of what she used to be and what she now is demands the question of what occurred since then and now. In Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, the narrator speaks with a stammer; rather than be a simple characteristic, it helps propel the story.
A character, sure, might own a lot of cats, but that novel better have a lot to do with cats. If you give a character a huge scar across his face, you better explain what car accident or dark wizard gave him that scar. Don’t fall into Dickens syndrome, attributing exaggerated physical traits to characters with only stereotypical consequences. Those do not help us understand and sympathize the character; instead, we merely know that if she has a big nose, she is nosy.
People, though, are weird, jammed to the trachea with contradictions. Use that. Characters must act in the same way. Consider what makes the people you know unique. Their hobbies, their aspirations, their beliefs. These very real characteristics drawn from life contribute the motives behind which characters act.
To help a reader sympathize with a character, you need to make them go through Hell. I’m not going to care about a character for whom everything goes right– frustrate him and make him misunderstood. Make him suffer. Make him sometimes cruel. No one’s motivations are simple. Remember that.
What must be kept in mind is that characters must be fully developed. If I do not care about your characters, I will not care about your book. It doesn’t matter what happens to people that I feel I cannot care about. So, in writing stories, make sure you feel that you’re writing about real people. It will make your ability to reach people that much greater.