How To Get Readers To Feel Something For Your Characters-Part II

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.

Batman Backstory

So, this particular backstory can get old, but that doesn’t mean your characters won’t have past experiences that shape them.

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?

Baby eats puppy.

See? Even cute, loveable characters can have bad habits. It makes them more complex.

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.

Child's drawing

If you gave a description of your character to a sketch artist, would it look something like this?

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.

Barney's Hot/Crazy graph

Eccentric/sleazy. . .it’s a fine line. Always entertaining, though.

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.

Related Reading:

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.)

Does Your Hero Laugh in the Face of a Three Act Structure?

Victoria Grefer over at Creative Writing with The Crimson League (one of my Versatile Blogger Award nominees) recently did a series on heroes. She covered the reluctant hero, the willing hero, the anti-hero, the misjudged hero, and a caveat on classifying your heroes. Throughout the posts, and especially in the comments section, a book title popped up again and again, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

For those of you, like me, that did not get a degree in English or Literature, you might not have heard of Campbell or his book. I only stumbled across his name for the first time a month ago. However, if you’ve read a lot of fantasy and watched a lot of movies, chances are you’ve learned the lessons of his book without knowing it. You might even have written a novel following Campbell’s principles. I had.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book about myths. If you look through the history of myths throughout time and across cultures, they all share a similar structure. Myths deeply resonate with the reading public, even today.

Yeah, yeah, academic stuff. Yawn. I’m writing page-turning fiction here, Lara. Who cares about dusty old myths? Speilberg, J.J. Abrams, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Iron Man, Superman—I’ll stop there or the rest of the post could be a listing of examples of successful movies and books that use Campbell’s structure, which is often just called the Hero’s Journey.

Discovering the Hero’s Journey was a huge relief to me. I had been trying to shove my plot into a basic three or five act structure and it just wouldn’t fit, even after I sat on it and really tugged on the zipper. I could still make out the muffled voice of my heroine shouting snarky insults at me.

Trying to shove your characters into a 3 act structure might not work.

If your hero is just as hard to wrangle into those basic plotting devices everyone keeps telling you about, maybe it’s because he/she wants to be a hero of mythic proportions. If so, let your hero go on a journey. The following outline appears in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, and author Elizabeth Lyon even put it in a nice three act structure for us perfectionist rule followers.

Act One:  Departure, Separation

  1.  The Ordinary World/Hero at Home: Give your reader a little bit of normalcy before you send your hero off to face danger. Show them at work, with family, maybe even a current love interest. Make sure there’s still conflict. Just because they are at home, it doesn’t mean the story has to be boring.
  2. Call to Adventure/The Challenge:  Okay, now things are getting interesting. Will the hero go to slay the dragon, solve the crime, or embrace that he now gets furry every full moon?
  3. Refusal of the Call/Elimination of the Expendable Person:  Maybe your hero is ready to go right away, but the story is a lot more dramatic if he says no first. Then that not-right-for-them girlfriend can get killed and raise the stakes, making the hero that much more committed when they do answer the call.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor/Wise One:  Your hero is about to enter into a strange new world and needs guidance. Where would Luke Skywalker have been without Obi Wan and later Yoda?
  5. Crossing the First Threshold into the Special World/Mythical Woods:  In fantasy, a lot of times this actually means crossing into a new world. However, it doesn’t have to. If you write mysteries, it means crossing into the world of the killer. For romance, it could just mean entering the world of the love interest and all the vulnerability that entails.

Act Two: Descent, Initiation, Penetration

  1. Road of Tests and Trials/Allies and Enemies:  This is where you hit the real meat of any novel. You’re writing scenes of conflict between your protagonist and antagonist.
  2. Approach of the Inmost Cave:  The hero and his allies are preparing for the big event, usually a major face off with the antagonist.
  3. Belly of the Whale/Meeting with the Goddess, Temptress; Atonement:  This stage isn’t always listed, but adds another trial for your hero. Feeling mean? Throw a time of desperate solitude at him, or a temptress, or guilt, etc. right before he has the big battle.
  4. The Ordeal/Life and Death Struggle:  Now your hero is ready to face death or his greatest fear. Often this is the first major battle with the villain.
  5. Reward:  The hero usually gets something out of facing death. It can be a sacred object like a grail or a spell, or finally winning the love interest, or knowledge for the community, etc.

Act Three:  Return

  1. Refusal of the Return/The Road Back:  About three quarters of the way through the book, the hero wants to return home with the reward. The antagonist usually chases him.
  2. The Ultimate Test/Resurrection:  This is your climax. Almost home, the hero has one last battle where he must make a sacrifice. He may or may not die, and whatever personal growth you’ve been working on throughout the story needs to be resolved here. The death/resurrection is usually metaphorical as the hero becomes a new person, but with fantasy sometimes he just might die and come back.
  3. Return with the Reward/Elixir/Master of Two Worlds:  The hero makes it home and as he is changed, can now help change his community. Sometimes he answers a new call to adventure, also known as a sequel.

For you visual learners, here’s a handy-dandy graphic to keep all those steps straight from Christopher Vogler:

Graphic of the Hero's Journey

Or, for you overachievers, if you’d like the full 17 step super duper original Campbell version, here you go:

Campbell's Hero's Journey Graphic

Does your hero or heroine play nice with traditional plotting devices?  Does the myth structure fit you better, or have you found yet another way?

Related articles:

The Heroine’s Journey (the first post of twelve) The blog takes an in depth look at Campbell’s structure using the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Women Protagonists in Fantasy Fiction

Up Next:  The Cast of Characters in the Hero’s Journey