Encouragement, Coaching and Prompts for Writers
A monthly blog by Eve West Bessier, Poet Laureate Emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico
In this edition, I will talk about how to write engaging and true to life characters. I will also address some pitfalls to avoid.
Even if you’re writing a memoir, in which the characters are real people and you are the protagonist, putting those characters onto the page is more tricky than you might expect. When you are making up characters from scratch for a piece of fiction, the plot thickens. Literally!
Let me begin by mentioning that most stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. That means the storylines are either primarily moved forward by the agenda of the plot, or by the personal evolution of the main character or characters. Some stories are moved forward by a blending of plot and character motivation. Those are my favorites! The magic in this blending is that the characters are tossed into an initial plot scenario and then develop themselves and the trajectory of the plot as the story moves forward. I’ll talk more about this a little later.
While there are always exceptions, and modern stories are shifting definitions and boundaries all the time, genre fiction tends to be plot-driven, while literary fiction tends to be character-driven. Memoirs and biographies are by nature character-driven, though they are about revealing the overall arc in the plot of a life. In all cases, however, strong characters are essential to engaging your readers.
There are four primary aspects to consider in building a character. In order of importance they are: Action, Speech, Thoughts, and Appearance.
Appearance is the most simple and straight-forward to write, so many authors will begin building their characters by describing their physical appearance. That’s fine, even recommended, but watch out for the tendency to put all of your marbles into that one jar. Actually, let me turn that metaphor inside-out. Be careful that you don’t spend so much energy creating the pretty jar, that you forget to fill it up with colorful marbles!
Of course, it’s important for your readers to be able to visualize your characters, but their physical appearance is only the surface. True, a character’s physique and how they dress can reveal aspects of their personality and values, but if there is nothing deeper than the Prada pumps or the flannel shirt, the character will lack dimension and appear flat. Although, if worn in combination, Prada and flannel would make for a quirky first impression.
What gives a character depth, however, is not the first impression they make. It’s the way they behave, what they say and what they think.
As writers, our job is to reveal our characters in such a way that they walk off the page into life. They are the main vehicles for the storyline, without them we have no way to show the story, we can only tell the story. Surely, you’ve heard the old writer’s axiom, “Show don’t tell.” Yes, I have, thank you very much, and stop calling me Shirley!
Let me offer a couple of examples here. Let’s say you have a story in which a woman discovers that the man she is dating is actually a private detective hired by her father to keep an eye on her. How might this revelation affect the character? Here is what you get if you only tell the reader how she feels.
Sharon was livid! How could her father be such a cad? To make things worse, she’d been enjoying her dates with Jason. Now, that would have to come to an abrupt end.
Okay. I now know that Sharon is angry and disappointed, but those four sentences just don’t do it for me. I don’t feel, and therefore can’t empathize, with Sharon’s anger or disappointment. Are you with me on this?
Let’s see what happens if we add some action and dialogue into the scene.
Sharon slammed her cell phone onto the desk.
“Shit!” she exclaimed, both in reaction to that last call, and to having possibly ruined her brand new iPhone.
She picked the phone up again. It seemed fine.
She scrolled to recent calls and punched the number for her mother.
“Mom? Did you know about this?”
“About what, Honey?”
“Don’t Honey me! Dad hired some jerk to spy on me.”
“He’s just worried about you, Dear. Since the abduction, he just wants to be sure you’re safe.”
“Safe?! Safe?! You think dating a guy, whom I really liked by the way, and finding out he’s a hired detective makes me feel safe?!”
Sharon hung up, tossed the phone onto the couch and screamed.
Okay, now I’m starting to experience Sharon’s rage and to feel some empathy for her situation. This is just a snippet of dialogue, just a hint at character, yet it already has more dimension than in example #1. Plus, it’s like a fishing line tossed out to hook the reader’s attention and interest. You want the reader to wonder what will happen next.
I find that once I place a character into a situation that involves tension, the character naturally tries to defuse that tension. How they approach this gives insight into their personality and values.
If I introduce a problem into a storyline, the characters will try to solve it. My advice is to hang out with your characters as they deal with the problem and listen closely. Trust that they know themselves better than you do, as yet, and follow the trail of their actions, words and thoughts.
I know what you’re going to say. “But I’m the one who is writing their actions, words, and thoughts! How can I follow them, when I’m creating them?”
I know, it seems oxymoronic, but consider this. When we are doing our job as writers at its finest level, we are not creating the characters. They are creating themselves on the page through us. If we can wrap your heads around that concept, we are well on our way to making the writing experience one heck of an adventure!
If you insist on using some dry formulaic method to write characters and plot, writing can quickly become a real drag. Yes, that is perhaps just my opinion. After all, there are a plethora of books out there happy to provide you with formulas a plenty. However, I am not alone in having discovered that trusting the characters is the best way to breathe life into them. It’s also fun and exciting.
Hemingway once said, and I paraphrase, that after he placed his characters into the story, he just had to hold onto the reins and try not to fall off the galloping horse. The characters gave him one hell of a ride! I’ve experienced that elation, and when it happens, I can hardly type fast enough to keep up with the galloping horse. I have no idea how Hemingway managed it on a manual typewriter.
Don’t be alarmed if the characters begin to change the storyline from your original concept of it. They will do this. Don’t stop them. They know what they’re up to, and you would be well-advised to trust their instincts because those instincts come from your own deep wisdom and well of knowledge about life.
Believe me, if you’ve been on the planet for more than a couple of decades, you have some deep wisdom and a well of knowledge about life. Deep breath. Trust your own truth and let it shine through your characters.
To get started, and to give you some ground, here’s a writing exercise to help with building characters before you start writing them into your story. It’s the writing prompt for this month and has two parts.
When I was (briefly) a stage actor, I needed to get into character, as they say in the theater. I prepared myself for this by asking my character a lot of questions, off stage. What’s your favorite song and when did you first hear it? What’s your idea of a perfect day? What bothers you the most about your parents? When you were seven, what did you like to do after school? I let my character talk to me about things that were not in the script. Let your characters talk to you about things that you aren’t planning to include in the storyline. You’ll get a deeper understanding of their inner workings. Don’t worry if this exercise gives you pages and pages of information. You won’t be putting all of that into the story. In fact, please don’t put all of that into the story! This is just homework that will help you to get to know your character.
Once you’ve done the first exercise, you will be ready to give your character a trial run. Make sure you give them a good solid, interesting name. Dress them up as they want to be dressed. Have them engage in a conversation with another character, or with you. Give them a problematic situation and see what they do, say, think.
Here are a few tips for this process.
Watch out that your character isn’t just a carbon copy of yourself, unless you’re writing your memoir.
Liberate yourself from thinking that your main character needs to be likable. The protagonist of a story does need to be someone the readers will want to see succeed, but it is more engaging to watch the main character overcome initial character flaws and poor behavior choices in order to grow and eventually reach success. Don’t make the main character too goody-goody. Not even if you’re writing for children, especially if you’re writing children.
Remember that your story will also need engaging antagonists, villainous or just darkly misguided characters who try to derail your protagonist’s efforts at success. You can, of course, choose to make your protagonist villainous or darkly misguided. That can be an interesting twist.
My advice to you is to not get bogged down or too serious in this exercise. Play around, be light-hearted in your work. Create a file folder for each of these two exercises, so you can save lots of drafts. Don’t edit the drafts. Give your editorial brain a vacation, or at least a very long lunch break. If you find that you’re not having fun anymore, give yourself a very long lunch break! Come back to it later.
As always, I wish you all the best. Write on!
Scroll down to About The Author for more information and check out Eve’s website at: www.jazzpoeteve.com.