Building a rich world and crafting an intricate plot are meaningless without realistic characters…..
Why is character so important? You have a well though out plot. You have a unique and interesting setting that has never been seen before….Yet your book didn’t sell. Your readers were bored, and your agent won’t return your calls… so what wen’t wrong?
You failed to create believable characters that felt real to the reader. Maybe your readers couldn’t connect to the hero, maybe they hated the villain…but not for the reasons you intended. Whatever the reason, the simple answer is…your CHARACTERS fell flat. How do you fix this? Thankfully the answer is pretty simple. spend some time to REALLY develop them. their thoughts, emotions, desires, goals. Think about these things at length. the more work you put into your characters, the more realistic they will be for the reader.
There are several ways to approach this issue. and ultimately it depends on how YOU as the writer approach crafting your story. I covered this a bit in last weeks post…Writing advice: where to begin so…are you an Outliner? a Discovery writer? or like me a Gardener? lets look at how each approach might tackle this part of the process.
As an Outliner, you have spent hours…weeks, and months detailing your setting and plot, your world building covers everything from the economy to the mating habits of dragons. So you SHOULD spend that same amount of energy on building a character. Start small, name your character, give them a description. now you know what to call them and what they look like. Now begin thinking about the little details. What kind of job do they have? This might be something familiar like a farmer, detective or cook. or maybe your world has some unique jobs that do not exist anywhere else, maybe your main character is a Dire Wolf breeder, or they work at as a technician at a dark matter refinery, you know making the fuel they use for star cruisers. Whatever it is, this is where they begin their story. Even if this takes place before the story YOU are currently writing. do they hate their job? Do they love it? Have they been passed up for a promotion at the refinery and it has made them hate their career choice? Has it put a burden on their family? If so…what is that burden? Did a Dire wolf chew off your hero’s hand and now he has a prosthetic? Is that how he got the scar on his face and his drinking problem?
The point is, as an outliner, you can sit down and delve VERY… VERY deeply into the history of your character, we are all defined by our pasts, your characters should be too. doing this will give you insight into where they can go, or to word it better. HOW THEY CAN GROW through your story. If your characters do not change through the course of your story, they will not be interesting…usually. we will talk about the exceptions to this later.
One thing that could prove a useful tool in your character building as silly as this sounds are character templates from an RPG game like Dungeons & Dragons.
It may seem a bit silly, but these types of games ask players to REALLY flesh out the character they are playing, flaws, ideals, physical traits, a back story, a simple sheet like this can help you craft a reasonably well thought out character to START the beginning of your book.
A discovery writer would approach this topic a bit differently. As you write you sort of get to know your characters as you meet them. as you spend time with them. As you write you might decide that the small farm boy likes or dislikes a particular character based on their interactions together, you don’t need much history for this and you can create a cast of rich characters with little backstory as long as they behave correctly when they interact with each other, or make decisions when they are alone that that type of character would actually make regarding whatever situation they are in. As a writer you must remember the characters must always do things or react to things in a way that seems true to the type of character they are. DO NOT WRITE CHARACTERS THAT DO THINGS ONLY TO SERVE THE PLOT! this is the biggest mistake any writer can make when handling their characters.
Your deadly assassin would NEVER save the hero he has been paid to kill on a whim.
Your hero would NEVER steal for the fun of it.
If these types of things need to happen in your story, build to them. Make them feel inevitable with proper use of foreshadowing.
As a discovery writer, you will no doubt write scenes as they come into your head, that’s your process, but you must go back and properly foreshadow events during your revision process.
GARDENER: I won’t spend much time here because if you read last weeks article you no doubt know where this is going. As a gardener, you (like me) spend some time doing a bit of both, while an Outliner may sit down and about every little detail of their character from the pre-history of their book until the end of the novel, you the gardener only worry about planting the seeds. I like to use the Character sheets I mentioned above for this, it helps me flesh out who the character is/was at or before the book begins. from there, I let the events I uncover as I write dictate how each character changes as the story progresses. by doing this I can focus less on plot and more on making engaging characters that the reader will (hopefully) love.
Some Characters in your book might not change much or at all, small characters that appear infrequently or only once do not require as much work, focus instead on the obvious traits, the physical, the behavioral, things your main viewpoint characters would notice. this will help flesh out the realism of the world you have created. remember the ICEBERG PRINCIPAL and SHOW DON’T TELL.
You may have a viewpoint character that you need to stay the same through your story for various reason, and that’s ok, not every one in your story is going to grow, as long as you have fleshed out the WHO and the WHY of who the character is from the physical to the behavioral as well as SOME history. You do not have to reveal all their history, maybe the character doesn’t want to, but that decision if written in a way that makes sense is another way to flesh out not only your characters, but your world as well.
So that’s it for this week, I know I haven’t nearly covered this topic as much as it deserves, so I will most assuredly circle back to it later. for now though, please let me know your thoughts on the subject. How do you write your characters? What did I get right? Wrong?
Thanks for reading!