In my experience, there are two types of readers and writers:
It all boils down to your style. If you are the type who likes to read/write action-packed stories with lots of twists and turns, you’re more of a plot person. If you enjoy more introspective, internal action and development, characters really get you going.
But the best novels do both.
With that being said, characters fall flat all the time. So what can you do to make sure you – and your readers – get the most out of your cast of characters?
At some point in your life, I am sure you have all been asked the question of “how would you respond if there was a gun against your head?” You may think you know how you respond, but there’s no way to really know until you are in that position.
But you need to know and think about how your character’s would respond in order to get to their essence. Here’s a few things needed to answer that question for a wonderfully developed character:
A Physical Description
Yes, I want to know the color of their hair, if they are tall or short, the type of clothing they wear. But I do NOT want a long droning paragraph about how “her eyes sparkled, gray in the early morning sunlight like the turbulent sea before a storm.” Instead, weave these details into the narrative with short references, small actions or the dialogue of another character.
Example: She stood on her toes to see the stage over the other concert-goers’ heads and brushed her blonde bangs out of her eyes.
Again, no long, droning paragraphs! Only include details relevant to the overall plot. There is no point in telling your reader that the protagonist’s favorite childhood pet was a dog named Sandy unless it impacts the story. But if your character was abandoned as a child and grew up in an orphanage… That will be important to know.
No one is perfect, and this is especially exacerbated in fiction. Your protagonist’s flaw should appear in the very first chapter. It can be anything from a physical disability or a mental disorder to a chip on their shoulder or a need for perfection. But we need to see where he/she is starting into order to anticipate the growth needed for a satisfying ending. You can learn more about that journey here and how it relates to character development.
Ask your characters what they want. The answer is usually two-fold: an external goal like a promotion as well as an internal desire such as a wife and family to overcome their loneliness. The external goal is easy, but your character may not even know what they truly want at first… But as the creator, you need to decide.
Flaw + desire = contradiction. It’s a simple equation. What about your character is keeping him/her from accomplishing their goals?
Example: My protagonist in State of Grace – Dani Anderson – is horrifically lonely, but she also alienates everyone around her as a result of her tragic childhood.
A Roadblock (or several)
So when reviewing my first draft of State of Grace, my editor gave me a bunch of great feedback, but one piece in particular really resonated with me. “Your protagonist is getting through this really easily. Make it harder on her, or there’s no motivation for growth.”
If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: you really need to torture your characters.
I know it sounds mean. I know you love them. But hardships, obstacles and roadblocks = growth, success and resolution. You can’t have one without the other.
So if your character seems to be coasting through the novel, throw a few more things in her way. These can be external or internal, but make sure they are there. Introduce a secondary antagonist, shock your character with fresh news, question him/her through other characters. Anything to test your character’s character, give more insight and context to the reader, and up the tension.
Speaking of context and tension… Next week, I’ll be discussing effective methods to increase both and create page-turning tension. Until then!