So we’ve established that if readers don’t care about your characters, they are much more likely to ditch your book. On Monday, we talked about common author errors that lead to character apathy.
It’s not enough to just avoid the obvious pitfalls, though. When I finish a book with characters I really love, it’s almost like a death. I’m in mourning for a few days, and I’m known to be a little crabby. Those are the authors whose books I pre-order. When that next book hits my door, I crawl back into the world of my beloved friends. I pity the person that interrupts me. I aspire to write books that readers feel that strongly about.
Granted, there’s no formula for writing perfect characters. I have found starting with the following questions certainly increases your chances of writing deeper characters whom your readers will enjoy. How do you know if your manuscript needs more work on characterization? That’s simple. Every manuscript needs deeper characterization. Career editor Elizabeth Lyon maintains that this is a nearly universal phenomenon in the manuscripts she sees.
What experiences have shaped your character? Rare is the person who has made it to adulthood (or even the teenage years for those writing young adult) unscathed. Most of us carry around past experiences for good or for ill that shape not only our worldviews, but the actions we take. Well developed characters are no different. This doesn’t have to be clichéd. Not all heroes have to be orphans on quests to bring justice to the villains who killed their parents before their very eyes! Your heroine could just as easily be formed by her experience as a military brat who grew up on bases in other countries. Not really American, not really of the other cultures, either, this “third-culture” kid is restless and has trouble committing to long-term relationships. Whatever the backstory is, you need to know it, and every character needs one. Good novels generally show character growth. A great way to do that is to show a character overcoming the wounds of the past.
What drives each character? I’m not talking about the story goal here, whatever that might be. Don’t confuse this with getting the girl, defeating the villain, etc. These are usually universal needs that everyone can identify with. This is the personal yearning that is more important to the character than anything else. Is it a desire to be loved? Do they want to succeed and finally make a disapproving parent proud? Do they need to feel needed and useful? If you don’t know what they want most of all, how will you make decisions for the character?
Did you give them strengths? Weaknesses? No one is all good or all bad. Your heroes need flaws and your villains need redeeming qualities. Not only does it make your characters more interesting, it also provides you with good sources of internal story conflict. A hero’s weakness can keep him stuck in the mistakes and experiences of the past where he’ll never get what he’s yearning for. His strengths will pull him toward character growth. Don’t go crazy with a grocery list of both, though. Pick one or two of each to emphasize, or you can just end up with a mess.
What does your character need to learn (often the theme)? In order for your character to get what she yearns for most, what does she have to learn first? For example, just because a desire to make a disapproving parent proud drives your character’s actions, she doesn’t have to get that approval in the end. In fact, she might need to learn that her disapproving parent will never be pleased. The story theme might be about her finally accepting that. In the end, the way her yearning is fulfilled is quitting the career that her parents approved of but she hated. She must now find her self-worth outside of parental approval.
Can you picture them? I’m not talking a semi-vague blob here where you’ve just nailed down the basics of hair and eye color, height and weight. You need a crystal clear, very detailed portrait of each character. In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyons lists the following physical characteristics that you should know: gender, age, height, weight, body build, body hair, race, skin color, skin texture, hair body and style, hair texture and color, smell of hair, head size and shape, facial hair, eye shape and color, shape of brow, shape and fullness of lips, teeth size and color, personal grooming, handshake, hands, nails, body smell, added scents, carriage and posture, activity level (lethargic to maniac, focused to attention deficit), deformities, hereditary physical attributes, birthmarks, scars, tattoos, overall health, habitual stances, gestures, and mannerisms, voice quality—volume and timbre and pitch (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass), quality of laugh, head-to-toe clothing (style, functionality, quality), and accessories (jewelry, bags, satchels, gloves, scarves, hats). Whew!
Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys over at Mired in Mundanity did a post back in May that provides authors with a list of 101 excellent questions to ask when developing characters. The final one is one of the best questions ever. “Why should I give a tinker’s damn about your character? Don’t get offended, it’s a valid question. What makes your character interesting? Am I supposed to like them, or hate them? Why?” I’ve found it to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. I want to turn all middle-schooler and shout, “Just because, okay!” Forcing yourself to answer it will go a long way in focusing your characterization efforts.
Are they eccentric enough? This one comes from Sol Stein. I was skeptical of this advice at first, but after I was made aware of it and started studying good characters, I realized he was right. Stein maintains no one really wants to read about an average Joe. Readers have enough ordinariness in real life, so they long for something unusual in their fiction. Any How I Met Your Mother fan knows Barney’s character wouldn’t be as legen-wait for it-dary without his catch-phrases, suits, apartment purposely designed to discourage women from staying long, crazy vs. hot charts, elaborate playbook for picking up women, etc. You might not be friends with Barney in real life, but he’d be fascinating to read about.
Mired in Mundanity’s whole list of 101 Questions for Characters
The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test (A test to see how clichéd you’ve made your character.)
I’d never considered that eccentricity thing before but it makes sense. And yes, Barney is my favourite HIMYM character. And Frederickson is my favourite Sharpe character (I’ve been rewatching the series recently) – he appears in two of 14 episodes, but damn does he make you notice him. Spendid character. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one.
I disagree on the level of detail for what the character looks like, though. I don’t think appearance is anywhere near as important as personality. The vital statistics – general info about height, build, fitness, colours of hair, skin, eyes, etc – plus details that a casual observer would notice, like facial hair, scars, moles, particular nose shape, something that’s not symmetrical, visible injuries and so on, are fine as far as I’m concerned, both as a reader and as a writer. Knowing head shape of timbre of voice isn’t necessarily important.
While, I’d agree that personality does trump physical details (and Lyon has an equally long list for personality traits), I feel like writers can miss out on conveying character personality through the physical details. Take Barney, for example. His personality doesn’t allow him to wear anything but a suit (which he sang about one episode). He’d likely never wear his hair long or grow a soul patch. How much less effective would his flirting be if he had a girlish high-pitched voice or a giant melon-shaped head? You can play around with expectations or let the physical details fade to the background, but the list at least makes you consciously think about each choice.
I think it’s the little things that tend to make us care about characters, more than the big, life-changing events. Introducing a character by showing him witnessing the death of his parents might garner sympathy, but how many of us can really relate to an event like that?
One of the most successful characters I know of is Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder, (14 novels, 7 films) the world’s unluckiest thief. When we are first introduced to Dortmunder in “The Hot Rock”, he is waiting to be released from prison and has just blown his nose, and has nowhere to throw his tissue. The warden comes forward to shake his hand, and Dortmunder is stuck offering the warden his hand with a used tissue in it.
That’s the kind of scene that just about anyone can relate to. We are mortified for the poor guy, and from moment on, I felt for him.
Agreed. I appreciated your recent Bob Kane post that made some similar points. My husband doesn’t like most superhero movies because he’s tired of hearing about their angsty pasts. It can be done well, but often it just ends up cliched. Dortmunder sounds wonderfully eccentric.