Tuesday, June 10, 2014
When someone was a little different, my mom used to remark, “What a character!” I’m reminded of that when I hear cable network USA’s tagline, “Characters welcome.”
In our novels, characters are not merely welcome; they’re required. And the more remarkable and memorable—the more “what a character!”—they are, the better readers like it. But there are a gazillion novels out there, each with an assortment of make-believe people running around in it. How can we help our story characters stand out from the crowd?
Several reviewers of my books mention the strength of my characters, so, though I’m no expert, I guess I’m at least on the right track. Let me share with you three things that, in my opinion, a story character needs in order to be lifelike and memorable.
1) A history. Only our forefather Adam started life as a fully formed adult. For the rest of us, our personalities were shaped by a combination of genetics and experiences. You don’t want to dump a bunch of backstory on the reader every time you introduce a new character, but the writer needs to be familiar with that history. Get to know your characters before you start writing about them, and they can be multi-dimensional when they hit the page.
2) A motive. For everything. People who teach about story crafting are always harping on the big-picture motives that drive a plot—as well they should. Because without motive, a plot will flop like an inflatable yard decoration with the air let out. But motive is also important in the little things. In real life, nobody randomly does anything, and the same should be true in fiction. Even the act of brushing a wisp of hair from the forehead is done for a reason. (The character has a cowlick? He’s meticulous about his appearance? She’s afraid of bugs and the hair feels like an insect?) If you give a character an action beat, give him a motive for it as well. Don’t explain the reason, but know what it is, and let the reader see it as the scene plays out.
3) A quirk or two. This is often related to the character’s history. For instance, in my latest release, The Ransom in the Rock, Lileela is a typical teenaged girl in most respects. The usual adolescent struggles are, perhaps, a bit intensified by the tenuous situation she’s forced into, but most readers will remember their own teen years and relate to the feelings that war within her. But unlike the average kid, Lileela has a pronounced limp. She also wears a ridiculous amount of cosmetics.
Both these quirks are tied up with her history. The limp is from a spinal cord injury suffered when she was five. And the make-up problem? Well, you should see the rest of the people on the planet where she’s just spent the last ten years of her life. Let’s just say she picked up some strange ideas of beauty.
It might be a little easier to come up with quirks when you write speculative fiction, as I do. But there are still plenty of flat cardboard characters on that bookshelf. Sometimes it seems like the author got out her set of fantasy-character cookie cutters and started pressing them into the dough of her manuscript with wild abandon. No genre is immune to same-old, same-old.
But, okay. So your character has a history, a motive for everything she does, and a quirky trait or two. Let me add another thing to worry about: consistency.
Let’s say your protagonist, Cadwallader, is deathly afraid of heights. If his buddy says, “Hey, Wally, let’s go skydiving,” you’d better not have your protag say, “Sure!” and eagerly hop into a plane. That action wouldn’t be consistent with his quirk.
Or, maybe, your character’s history involves being attacked by a bear. Is she likely to go on a backpacking trip in the wilderness unarmed? Not if she has a choice.
It is, however, permissible to make your character do something out of character if she doesn’t have a choice. That can help build your character’s character. Which, despite the repetitive words, makes her stronger and more memorable.
So when you draft your manuscript, leave the cookie cutters in the kitchen. Characters with history, motive, and a quirk or two will take on shapes of their own.
A resident of Western Maryland, Yvonne Anderson writes fiction that takes you out of this world. She also does freelance editing; contributes to the writing blog The Borrowed Book; oversees Novel Rocket’s Launch Pad Contest; and is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, International Thriller Writers, and the Independent Author Network. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads.
Fly through the Gateway to Gannah for some serious sci-fi adventure: The first three titles, The Story in the Stars and Words in the Wind and Ransom in the Rock, are all available in both print and ebook. Watch for the launching of The Last Toqeph, the fourth and final flight in the series, in the autumn of 2014.