Why are characters important?
Characters are vital to a novel precisely because they give the plot and setting a human touch that the reader can attach themselves to and follow. Without these novels would just be a mash of descriptions, concepts, and words. Characters give stories depth; they make your tale more readable, not less. So just as you put great thought into the plot and the world that you are creating you should also put a lot of work into your central characters, since it is these that the reader will fall in love with and tell other people about.
Read a lot
It goes without saying that before you write a novel you should have read a lot. This way you can see what kind of characters you like, which characters work with the reader and which don't, so that when you sit down to write you have a pretty good idea about what your target audience is looking for. One of the many reasons why J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series was so successful was because Harry Potter was so likeable, with many children (and even adults) readily identifying with him. Of course you can't write a new Harry Potter - he's taken - but you can use him, or any other character for that matter, as inspiration for your own protagonists, so long as your take care to make them sufficiently different and original.
Make them believable
There are no two dimensional people in life so why should there be two dimensional characters in books? If there's one thing that annoys me about contemporary Young Adult (YA) literature it is the predilection of some authors (you can make your own minds up as to who I'm talking about here) to place 'sexy', young, American teenagers within their novels, without bothering to think how their world would shape them. You can't live in a dystopian, Orwellian world, half-starved from Monday to Sunday and grow up into a strapping six foot jock just dripping with sexual appeal. It's not realistic. He or she would be barely even healthy never mind a mini Mr.Universe. Use your empathy. Walk for a minute in their shoes, in their world, and see how they would feel and think. Whenever I sit down and write a Jack Strong adventure, the computer screen is merely a window to Jack's soul. I follow him wherever he goes, and see whatever he sees. I am him.
Use your experience
Your experience as a human being is the greatest tool that you have when it comes to writing a successful character. Use your life experience as a guide for any and every character you write. Stephen King says that to greater or lesser degrees he is every character that he writes (especially Jack Torrance in his novel The Shining). My experience being bullied as a child certainly helped me to write Danny Moo, my main character in Dragon Rider, who is being victimised at school on an almost daily basis. Ultimately, the more believable you as a writer find your character the more believable they will be in turn to your readership. If they don't make you laugh and cry you shouldn't expect the reader too either.
Speak the truth
When writing dialogue (whether or not you are writing in the 3rd person is irrelevant) you are the character, so it is important that the words that come out of their mouths are both realistic and believable. And that means colloquial English. Since in a sense I grew up with most of the characters in my books I know exactly how they would speak and how they wouldn't. If your characters would swear in a certain situation then make them swear, or if they would abbreviate a lot of their words then make them do that. Don't be shy. You're writing literature, not propaganda, and your readership knows the difference. At the end of the day, the more believable your dialogue is the more real your character becomes in the eyes of your readership.
Writing novels is not rocket science. As a human being with an above average vocabulary range and an all-too-human experience you have the tools to create likeable, believable, well-rounded characters that will have us turning the page or tapping the screen for many years to come. All you really need to do is put a magnifying glass to your soul, add a dash of imagination, and then write them.
If you want to read my novel about a bullied, 12 year old boy's adventures in space please check out the link below: