We love a good book that seems to come out of nowhere, makes its mark with one spectacular burst of brilliant story-telling then ends, leaving us wanting more.
Ask a person about their favourite and you will get a variety of answers, all generated by by a certain kind of recollection.
However, ask a reader about what books they loved growing up and you’ll get a certain special look come into their eye.
The stories we loved as children are very often the stories we love best of all.
And often those stories came to us over the course of many books.
Most of our favourite reading memories come from serialized writing:
The Hardy Boys.
Good serial characters are like good friends: we know that spending time with them will make us feel better.
As writers, we should work hard at creating the kinds of characters that readers will love to visit again and again.
How to create great characters
1)Learn about your characters: If you are writing a series or plan to, knowing your characters is essential.
- J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote the backstory of every one in Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, as prep for writing the first two novels in the series. While this might seem a bit of prep overkill, it also no doubt helped her in the subsequent novels when she needed to create sub plots and supporting characters, because she knew the characters’ stories and therefore a clue to their motivations and reactions to situations.
- Knowing the background of your character right off the bat can seem a bit daunting. After all, aren’t we supposed to learn about our character by writing? Isn’t that what first drafts are for, to tell ourselves the story?
- However, there are ways to get to know your character:
- Pick one aspect of the character that you already know, like the job they have.
- On a blank page (or if you are intimidated by all that white screen or paper, just start writing at the end of something you’ve already written; you can C&P or tear it out later) ask your character to describe something about their job: a day at work or how they came to be at that job.
- Feel free to just turn off your brain and go with the flow. Don’t overthink, just go with the first thing that comes into your head.
- By getting your character to answer these seemingly benign ‘cocktail party’ questions, you are sneakily getting insight into your character, building up a reservoir of knowledge and character traits that you can use to inform your choices within the novel.
- Developing characters profiles can seem a little like procrastination and not “really writing” a novel.
- However, taking a while to get to know the history of your characters can only enrich the characterization as well as making the process of writing smoother, since you can base your writing on what you know about your characters.
- Even if you don’t explicitly use the information, it will help you make narrative choices:i.e. “Mary would never act that way; she was in the Peace Corps for three years.”
No-one is all one thing or another; There are shades of grey in everyone.
- Make your character sometimes hold an opinion that seems at odds with what you know of her.
- Maybe Mary’s Peace Corps experience made her slightly impatient with the political process.
- Maybe she realized that she wasn’t as tolerant of other cultures as she thought.
- Sometimes a character knows how they should act in a given situation, but things like fear or apathy force them to not act in a given way.
- While this can create suspense and tension within a story (Will Mary fold under pressure again?) it shouldn’t be just a random ‘dice toss’ but should really flow from a logical place within her character.
3) Give them a rich environment:
- We usually enter a novel in media res, with many events having come before the action described within the pages of the novel. These events are what brackets and informs the story, even though they are often only hinted at or alluded to.
- In addition, the story is very seldom the only thing going on in these character’s lives, especially if we are seeing them in jobs.
- Think about what the rest of their lives might be like can help us make more informed choices about their character.
- In one detective series, a Detective is also part of a weekly hockey team. Does this directly figure in the action of the novels? Rarely, but it does offer us a bit of insight into the way she thinks and why she might look at a case like a game.
- Sometimes the best way to look at the action of a novel and finding ways to develop the story is to pull back from the immediate actions and events of the novel and look at the bigger picture of the world it describes.
4) Give them something to eat:
- To quote, “you are what you eat.”
- A great way to unlock character is to find out what they like to eat.
- Oddly enough, this simple act can reference all the things we’ve talked about:
- Deciding what they like to eat can help us understand a bit more about deeper motivations and character traits.
- Having a character that is raised in one ethnic environment, but who likes food that is in contrast to those assumed traits can add *ahem* flavour to a reader’s understanding of the character. A Chinese girl who likes red beans and rice? Go for it….A man raised in the Deep South who needs a Dim Sum fix every once in a while? How cool is THAT?
- Nothing creates an opportunity for a great scene like sticking a few characters in a restaurant and having them chat things out over lunch.
These aren’t the only ways to build strong characters, but I think that they offer three ways to help start the process.
Experiment, mix and match and see where you can go with your characters.