It’s hard for a writer to gauge the quality of their own writing. You can’t really judge any of the surprises or emotional moments when you yourself created them. The longer you work on a project, the more familiar with it you get. And the more familiar with it you get, the harder it is to gauge whether those moments hit as hard as you hope they do.
Characters are just as tricky to work with. In your head, you know them as well as you know yourself. After all, you carved their personality, you worked out their backstories, and you have decided where their arc will take them. But how do you know if you’ve made them properly memorable and interesting? How do you know if these characters are everything that you had hoped they would be?
Well, the answer to that question is incredibly simple and, often times, incredibly scary: you ask someone else.
Getting someone else’s perspective on your writing is the most valuable thing a writer could ask for. They can see things that you can’t and point out issues that you don’t see as problems. Criticism is often scary and sometimes painful, sure. But if a writer truly wants to reach their full potential, they need to face it. Embrace it.
But criticizing writing is often just as hard as actually writing. Some readers don’t know how to properly put their critiques into words. This is why you’ll often hear “Uh, I don’t know” when you ask your reader to elaborate on an issue they had.
This especially pertains to characters. People are complex and often difficult to understand. And since characters are people, they can be as well. When someone has a problem with a character, they may understand perfectly well why. But just as often, they might not quite be able to put their finger on it.
So, what do you do? How do you manage to squeeze as much out of your beta reader as possible in regards to your character? How do you know if the character worked as well as you had hoped they would?
You make them play a game.
“Describe *insert character here* without mentioning what they look like, their profession, or their role in the story. Describe the character to me as if I have no idea who it is and you want to avoid spoilers.”
Often times when you ask someone to describe something or someone, they’ll leap to appearances or professions. They’re easy to talk about. The aim of this test is to corner your reader and force them to engage with the character’s actual personality traits.
This might sound mean. Like you’re forcing your reader to do something difficult and frustrating. But that’s the point. The stronger the character, the easier it is for them to describe. The weaker the character, the harder a time they’ll have.
A fantastic application of this test can be found in an all-time classic film review: Mr. Plinkett’s review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. In case you’ve never seen it, give it a look in the link right here. It’s still one of the greatest (and funniest) film reviews on the internet.
If you don’t want to watch it and see it in action, though, let me give you an example. This is what it looks like for a good character.
Lord of the Rings: Boromir
He’s an emotional, brave, heroic man tempted by evil. He’s a good person, selfless and self-sacrificing. But he is ultimately taken by his desperation to do good, manipulated by evil forces, and falls to darkness.
Now, a not so good character. The Hobbit: Gloin.
He’s… uh… well, he’s Gimli’s dad. Okay, maybe this is too good an example, because I can’t describe him at all. He, as well as most of the dwarves in The Hobbit, are just there to pad out the size of the party. Only a few of them have any actual impact on the story. And Gloin was not one of them.
If you put your reader to this test and they manage to describe your character’s personality in detail, then congratulations! You’ve got a memorable character on your hands. But if they hit a wall and can’t describe them to you, then you’ve got a problem. The test is more for the character than it is for your reader.
Is it a flawless test? Nah, probably not. But it’s certainly one way of doing it.
Or you could just find people who are good at criticizing writing. That’s probably the better option.