Talking About Fiction
December 6, 2008 | Written by admin
Teresa wrote to me and said, "I'd like to know about creating stronger characters in my novels."
There are a bunch of books out there on creating great characters, and all of them point to one basic idea: Give your characters something unique so that they are memorable. Let me toss out five quick things I think help make characters stick in the minds of your readers:
1. Give your characters something to do. This is a piece of advice I got from my writing instructor in college (famed fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin). She pointed out that I was trying to describe interesting people, or have them use colloquial terms, or have them dress a certain way…but they were flat. I was trying to tell about the characters, rather than allowing them to reveal themselves. As the author, I could picture them in my head, but my readers couldn't picture them on the page. The solution to making them more full? Give them something to do. That allows the characters to demonstrate who they are and what they're like, rather than forcing me, as the narrator, to simply tell everyone what they're like.
2. Show, don't tell. Yeah, yeah, you've heard this a million times from fiction editors. But it's one of the easiest ways to create more interesting characters on the page. Think about it…let's say you're trying to create a tense, Type A businessman as a secondary character in your thriller. If you tell the reader ("He felt nervous"), the character remains flat. It you show the reader ("He paced back and forth, chewed on his pencil, picked up his coffee cup, and wiped the sweat from his face"), the character begins to take on his own identity.
3. Give them attitude. One of the things I often see in historical and romance manuscripts is that the characters are all bland. The heroine probably has some spunk, and maybe the hero braves danger at the moment of conflict, but by and large the characters are emotionally flat. Worse, it's generally way too easy to spot the bad guys — I rarely see an interesting or sly or subtle nemesis. So if you want to create more memorable characters, give the main characters some attitude. Let the hero have a sense of humor, or demonstrate a devil-may-care perspective, or be a smart-ass. Allow your heroine to go against the grain, or be conflicted, or change her mind. Create a nemesis who glories in being evil, or who can laugh about his failures. Don't pull your characters from the same old stock character descriptions we've seen in hundreds of run-of-the-mill novels…give us something something different. Let them cut loose a bit by demonstrating an attitude.
4. Nobody is perfect. One of the joys of reading a good novelist is that he or she reveals a protagonist with feet of clay. If I have to read one more romance where the spunky redheaded Irish gal is true, honest, forthright, loving, beautiful, a virgin, dedicated to her widowed father, and, above all, brilliant in her analysis of her enemy's wiles (political, social, financial, and criminal), I'm going to scream. Trust me — I grew up in a Scots-Irish community, and not every Colleen is that smart. (Or, for that matter, that virginal.) A character becomes more real when we see faults. If you're writing a genre novel, you may be told that your leads can't have faults — but I think that's something you really have to explore if you ever want to create a great novel. When we see the failings or the quirks of a character we like, it makes us believe in him or her more. Because none of us are perfect.
(Though some of us are very, very close… And believe me, it's a lonely feeling.)
5. All of us find dialogue and action interesting. I've said it before, but if you want to keep people reading, give your characters dialogue and action. Dialogue reveals what the character is thinking, what motivate him or her. Nobody skips dialogue when reading a novel (um…well, maybe in Ayn Rand novels, but she has a tendency to replace "dialogue" with "speeches"). And action is what moves the story along, as well as revealing the character of the people in your novel. If your heroine flags down a taxi to follow Mr. Evil, or if your hero grabs the wrist of the terrorist holding the vial of nitroglycerine, or if your Bad Guy squishes the grapefruit into his girlfriend's face, the reader gets to see the character reveal himself/herself via the action of the story.
Five thoughts to ponder…