Does your character lack a beating heart?
October 12, 2016 at 2:06 PM
15 tips from author and manuscript assessor Sue Reidy about how to breathe life into your characters.
How well do you actually know your characters? Have you got under their skin? Do you have an in-depth understanding of their goals, needs, challenges, strengths and weaknesses, their greatest fears, what has shaped them?
Your job as a fiction writer is to create distinctive characters, people who are believable, nuanced, complex, dynamic and, above all, original. This will require you to drill deep, to draw on your own experience of human behaviour and motivation. But don’t be limited by your own life experiences.
Your characters may be informed by aspects of your own character, personality and personal history – but they are not you. If they were, you’d be writing a memoir, not a novel. So how do you invent a dynamic character whom readers will empathise with or be fascinated by?
- Create an inciting incident. Think of a catalyst early in your story that launches your character on their path and makes us interested in them from the start.
- Provide motivation. What does your character really, really want? And what would they be prepared to sacrifice or do to achieve their goal?
- Throw a spanner into the works. Who or what might prevent them achieving their goal? Introduce complications, obstacles, conflict. Problems or challenges that need to be fixed and addressed will launch your character on a journey and potentially transform them. Your character’s responses to challenges will reveal important clues about them.
- Raise the stakes. Ask ‘what if?’ constantly. If your character doesn’t get what they want, how serious will the consequences be? Don’t hold back. Investigate a range of actions and decisions that your character could take, ranging from the most obvious to the most dramatic and extreme. Choose whichever option will provide the most compelling consequences and opportunities for revealing and extending your character and creating momentum.
- Interview your characters. Get them to talk to you by asking them questions out loud. Record the resulting dialogue on your phone. Play it back. Listen for any jarring notes, for anything that is not true to your character.
- Voice. Adopting an appropriate voice to differentiate each character will help you to reveal information about them, e.g. their circumstances and their perspective on life. A distinctive, engaging voice can help readers to empathise with a protagonist or narrator.
- Deeply inhabit your characters’ emotional lives. This will help you to understand their emotional needs. Establish their world view, and the formative experiences that have shaped their attitudes, beliefs and values. Place yourself in your characters’ shoes. Feel their pain as they pick at an emotional scab, their trepidation as they face their fears, their anguish and uncertainty as they vacillate over a moral dilemma, their anger or resentment towards another character or to an unexpected life-changing event. Empathise with their confusion or apprehension, their deepest longings.
- Make us care about your characters. If they are unlikeable then make us fascinated by them. Create textures, layers, even moral ambiguity. Think of the tormented psychopath Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, who regularly visits a psychiatrist. Consider Walter White in Breaking Bad whose bad decisions launch him on a long, inexorable trajectory from good and well-intentioned to the embodiment of evil, in an extreme character arc.
- Create characters who are less than perfect. It is more engaging to read about characters who are flawed, behave badly or make mistakes, e.g. a character may be too impulsive or a poor decision maker. Characters who are too good and perfect are usually bland and one-dimensional.
- Give your characters contradictory impulses and personality traits. Danish crime writer Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Morck is grumpy, cynical, put upon, tenacious, wilful and he has zero tolerance for fools. On the flip side, he is also fiercely loyal, capable of significant acts of kindness and performs his role with great courage, often with a reckless disregard for his own safety.
- Subvert the stereotypes. This often produces the most interesting characters, e.g. the whore without a heart of gold, the frail granny who is actually a manipulative bitch. A character may appear bland and boring to others, yet turn out to have a special ability or quality that defies others’ expectations.
- Dialogue. Your character’s desires and fears can be revealed through sharp, tight dialogue.
- Action. Characters can be brought alive in the way they respond to moral dilemmas, difficult choices or sudden changes in circumstances, e.g. a timid person being propelled into demonstrating an unprecedented courage.
- The responses of other characters to your main character. How your secondary characters respond to your protagonist will provide valuable insights.
- Conduct more research. If your character has a job or an experience you know little about, interview people who do know. Including specific details will make your character more credible.