“If you treat your characters like people, they’ll reward you by being
fully developed individuals.”
Happy Monday, y’all! I hope, unlike me, you had a spectacular weekend. I did manage to add a few thousand words to my manuscript for Alabama Rain, but even doing so I know I’m behind on my goals for it. Being behind is no reason to give up, though!
I had a shortlist of things I wanted to blog about today, so how did I pick the winner? How did we land on character building, you ask. Because it’s a thing I’ve seen popping up in several book reviews lately. (Luckily not of my own.) There seems to have been a shift away from character building, and lots of reviewers are pointing it out.
DNF, too many flat characters.
I couldn’t keep reading, because the characters were so underdeveloped.
The author didn’t give me anyone to root for or against.
These are just a few examples of the reviews I’ve seen lately for books I’ve been interested in reading. I don’t always pay attention to reviews, but when one book gets multiple reviews like that, it makes me reconsider.
So let’s do something to prevent the continuation of that cycle.
Let’s talk about the six areas you need to consider about your characters so by the time your readers get hold of them, they’re reading stories about believable fictional folk and not just…mannequins with dialogue.
Let’s be honest, it’s next to impossible to get the amount of physical descriptions just right for every single one of your readers. Therefore, I offer you no such advice here. Your beta readers will probably let you know if you’ve gone too far on either end of the spectrum.
When describing your character’s face or body, it might be helpful to you to look at pictures of people who look similar to the way the character looks in your mind…but don’t just describe the color of their hair or eyes, though. Literature is littered with women who have flowing blonde hair and men who have piercing blue eyes.
These cliche descriptors are completely forgettable. Instead, give your readers something they’ll remember. For instance, in Alabama Rain, one of my characters has an ear that was half-chewed off by a dog…that’s not likely something my readers are going to forget.
Does your character have a tattoo? Of what, where, and was it botched?
What about that birthmark?
Challenge yourself to go beyond just brown hair and pale skin.
Another thing to remember about physical descriptions: Make them organic. Don’t plop your character down in front of a mirror and have them dictate every nuance of their own face to the reader. Unless this person is a model who is having their makeup done before a runway show…most people do not do this.
I don’t recall the exact source, but I remember hearing a piece of writing advice a while back that said if a character is worthy of a name, they’re worthy of a backstory.
This is so true. Does this mean you have to write out a lengthy paragraph or two detailing every named character’s life?
Absolutely not. But, just because you aren’t going to include it in your manuscript, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a general idea of what they’ve gone through, what shaped and molded them into who they are in your story.
Knowing your character’s backstories will help you navigate the actual story for them. If someone nearly drowned as a child, are they going to hesitate when crossing the raging waters of a river? Probably.
• Was your character bullied in school? That’s going to affect them!
• Were your character’s parents alcoholics? That’s going to affect them!
• Did their dog get kidnapped and held for ransom? That’s going to affect them!
• Did your character win a slew of pageants? That’s probably going to affect them!
We’re all products of our pasts, so you need to give your characters one. It will guide you when you have to make decisions for them.
How do you do this, you ask? How much should you know? That depends on how vital the character is. If they only appear in a few chapters, you might get by with a paragraph or two. If it’s a primary character, you should probably be able to talk about them like you’ve been acquainted for a long time.
Your character’s starting emotional health is directly affected by their backstory, so now that you’ve fleshed that out, you will have a better grip on what they’re like emotionally at their introduction.
It’s important to know so you’ll be able to write how they react emotionally to the piles of heartache you’ll shovel onto them. If it is inconsistent with who they are, your readers are going to point this out. For consistency’s sake, don’t skimp on learning their emotional state.
• Is your character hot-headed? Then would they really sit idly by as someone berates them? Probably not.
• Is your character afraid of conflict? Then would they really lash out at a teacher because they scored lower on a test?
• Does your character harbor a grudge against love? Then would they really instantly succumb to the batting blue eyes of their new next-door neighbor?
If you’re going to make your characters go against the grain of their typical emotional reactions, this is something your readers will sit up and take notice of. It’s not always a bad thing, and it can lead to some great developmental points. That character from the first bullet point, the hothead? Maybe he has to bite his tongue as someone shreds him a new one because they’ve got a gun pointed at his wife’s head.
Your readers will know he’s being made to do something he normally wouldn’t, and they’ll feel the tension it creates for your character as he fights his baser instincts.
Just as with knowing your characters emotionally, you need to know them spiritually.
Are they religious? Yes, what do they practice?
This will also dictate how they react in certain situations…so I want to focus less on that aspect, because it does mirror emotions so closely, and focus on something I’ve seen a few authors get horribly wrong. Can you take a guess at what that is? No? Yes? If you guessed they don’t know the spirituality or religion they’ve assigned their character, then you guessed correctly! Give yourself a candy bar.
If you were raised in a predominately Christian home and you decide you want one of your characters to be Buddhist, then…you should know something about Buddhism.
I won’t name the work, but I have seen an author write about someone’s religion being Atheism, and then go onto say that character was a devil-worshiper. Only…atheists don’t worship the devil.
So, please, do your research.
This is another area I’ve seen in several books that needed a little more attention.
How many times have you read a book where the character is said to have attended some major university, graduated at the top of their class, and now they run a multi-billion dollar corporation…and then they do the dumbest shit you’ve ever read in a book? Come on…how many? I’m guessing it’s been more than once.
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are plenty of highly-educated idiots out there, but your novel probably shouldn’t be filled with them.
If you’ve got a character who never made it past the sixth grade, then they’re not likely to have the same vocabulary as their long, lost sibling who graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton.
But let’s reverse this. Your Princeton grad is also probably going to sound crazy awkward if he tries to acclimate to an inner-city way of speech. Ebonics is going to be hard, foreign even, when you’ve spent over twenty years speaking straight out of an English textbook.
Also: intellect doesn’t just come from the classroom, remember that. Wherever your characters got their education, be it school, college, on the job, the streets, the military, or on the farm, make sure their intellectual voice coincides with it.
As we’ve made our way down this list, you can probably see how all of the above traits have mingled with one another and how they can all have an effect on one another.
This one is no different.
Your character’s strengths and weakness can stem directly from their physicality, back story, emotional health, spirituality, and their intellect. So, when you’re getting to this stage in the character mapping process, take all of those things into consideration.
All that said, I want you to keep one thing in mind: Characters need Kryptonite.
Is your steadfastly Baptist woman unable to have a weakness for bondage? Nope, not at all…this would be an incredibly interesting juxtaposition to flesh out, don’t you think? There is all sorts of internal and external turmoil that might come from such a fascination from such an unlikely person.
Hell, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes.
Sure your Princeton grad might be hella strong in all things science, but what if he develops a fear (or weakness) of fire? That Bunsen burner is now something he can’t face…so what is he to do?
Do you see where I’m going here?
This brings me to the bonus point I’d like to make about Character Building:
This is perhaps the number one complaint I’ve been seeing in reviews as of late. These complaints are coming in from both Indie novels as well as highly-anticipated traditionally-published novels:
Lack of personal growth.
One of the first things I said about getting to know your characters emotionally was that their backstory would help you learn about them when you first plop them in your manuscript. That is your baseline. That gives you their starting point.
You’re going to mess them up, though. You’ll give them conflict and challenge their beliefs. They need to change as a result. They need to have learned lessons and applied new knowledge and skills they’ve learned during their journey.
So, when you’re plotting your characters, don’t just plot who they are at the beginning of your manuscript…plot who you want them to become by the end. Draw a character arc, do a bullet list, anything to help you visualize where your character is going.
Any number and combination of these areas we’ve talked about today can and should go through a personal growth transformation.
A long time ago I came up with some Writing Aides that may help you as you’re outlining your characters. If you’re so inclined, have a look and let me know if they’re in any way helpful. (Which might inspire me to make similar things in the future.)
That’s all I’ve got for you today!
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