How To Write A Novel: Step by Step,  The Writing Life,  Writing quotes

Compelling Characters

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them a peril, you find out who they really are.

Joss Whedon

Characters are why people love stories, and it is why they will read your novel. Yes, some readers prefer fast paced, action-packed adventures to the more internal struggles of a character driven story. But if the main character does not capture your interest, you will not care what happens to her. If readers don’t care, they lose interest. They stop reading, Even if your characters are cats, as is the case in Erin Hunter’s Warrior series, they have personalities, strengths, backgrounds and feelings. Good characters will make or break your book.

So let’s take a closer look at characterization. What makes a character compelling?

What is not compelling, I learned, when I sent Winds of L’Acadie to the publisher, is a bratty teenage girl who spouts sarcastic comments to anyone within spitting distance. While focussing on the necessary conflict, I created a totally unlikeable protagonist. I had to soften her approach so that the reader would feel some empathy toward her situation. Now, I take care to create a character that the reader will like and want to root for as the conflicts mount and the stakes are raised.

Another problem with characters is when they fall flat on the page. What makes a character feel real?

  1. A well-developed character is one who is multi-dimensional. He is not all good or all bad. Everyone has flaws, but even the villain in your story needs to have some redeeming qualities. A multi-dimensional character is one we can picture in our minds, and one who has quirks in the way he acts and interacts with others. In other words, they have to react and interact in a way that is realistic and true to their character (personality.)
  2. Each character must have her own voice, mannerisms and gestures. The protagonist must have strengths (and weaknesses) and there must be inner conflict and turmoil.
  3. The protagonist needs to show growth from the beginning of the story to the end.

What all of the above amounts to is detail. Vague, undefined characters do not compel us to care about them.

Motivation and background

When creating compelling characters, it is important to understand each character. What motivates the character to behave the way she does? If the reader understands character’s background and situation prior to the scene or the opening of the novel, this will shed light on the character’s behaviour. For example, In my current WIP Anywhere But Here, the reader learns at the beginning of the novel, that Lily has recently lost her mother in a fatal car crash. The reader, then, is willing to cut Lily a little slack, when she argues with her father. The conflict is important, but I also there is also a line of respect that Lily challenges but does not cross. That too, is part of her background, part of how she was raised and part of who she is as a person. That line allows the reader to be sympathetic to Lily and want to root for her moving forward. As Orson Scott Card says in his book Characters and Viewpoints, “One of the reason people read fiction is come to some understanding of why other people act the way they do.”

Characters Who Are Characters

I love Sol Stein’s book How To Grow a Novel. The most common mistakes writers make and how to overcome them. It was one resource I counted on in my self education for writing a novel. It’s worth reading. He says “One notices people who stand out in a crowd. That is exactly the kind of character you want for your novel.” He goes on to say that characters who are eccentric capture our attention, but what holds the reader’s attention is being able to identify with the hopes, temptations, joys, triumphs, vulnerability and sadness.

Activity #1 below comes from his book.

To Do

  1. “Take the ordinary character that you are trying to improve, and look in his pocket. Find something that would surprise him greatly. What is it? How did it get there? Does it embarrass him? Is it something he wishes he had not found? How can he get rid of it?” Sol Stein
  2. If you have not developed a page for each of your characters in your notebook, you should do that now. Add quirks, mannerisms, descriptions of each significant character. Look at #2 in the above list and add inner struggles, strengths and weaknesses on the page for your main character.
  3. Check out last week’s post on CHARACTERS and do those activities if you missed them. Take a little time to fill in some information about how the main character views the other characters. That too, is revealing.

You should be getting to know a few of your main characters quite well now. Join me next Monday for some input on character arcs and viewpoint.

Tuesday through Friday I will post inspirational quotes and writing prompts in case you feel the need of some motivation.

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