Your characters are at the heart of your fiction. So whenever you get stuck with a novel, rely on your characters, rather playing with your plot.
Here’s why. Your plot is what your characters DO. Your prewriting (novel prep) must ensure that your characters ACT, and keep acting, throughout your novel.
To create great characters: preparation is essential
When you know enough about your characters, you won’t be derailed with disasters like a “soggy middle” for example.
This doesn’t mean that you must outline extensively before you start writing. Try this. Look on your first draft as a preliminary draft, rather than a complete version of your novel. In your first draft, you’re discovering the story, and your characters.
Circle back while you’re writing your first draft. For example, let’s say that you need one of your characters to do something complicated — something that most people can’t do. Go back and foreshadow it, so that the character’s actions are believable.
Now let’s look at three tips which will help you to create memorable characters.
1. Start with a character’s goals: who, what, why?
Each of your characters needs a major goal, as well as smaller goals. Look for these goals when you start writing or outlining.
Keep asking yourself (and your characters): who, why, when… how?
Yes, this means you’ll have a messy first draft. 🙂 Accept that. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll write a better book, because you’ll explore your characters, and your story.
Vital tip: remember, you need to SHOW. So, you can’t say: “Fred was an angry, bitter man.” If Fred’s anger is important to the story, you need to show Fred screaming at the neighbors’ kids, or chasing the neighbor’s dog out of his yard. Depending on how angry he is, he may do a great deal more than that.
2. Keep looking for characters’ motivations
As with goals, so with motivations.
Your character, Fred, is an angry man. Who is he really angry at? Perhaps Fred is angry at his boss, his wife, or his son. Fred can’t get angry at them, so he takes out his venom on others.
Motivations are fun, because you can play with them.
Keep asking yourself how you can make things worse — what’s the worst that Fred would do? What would happen next? How would the neighbor, and Fred’s wife and son react?
When you dig into your characters’ motivations, you’re plotting and it’s a lot of fun. Try it.
3. Make your characters fight: everyone fights, all the time
Your job as an author of fiction is to entertain. You can’t entertain readers if you make life easy for your characters. Give them goals and motivations which are in conflict. Make your characters fight.
However, be careful not to create melodrama. Lay the foundation for their conflict, but avoid loading your story with backstory, because:
… your readers don’t care. They’re in your story, because you’ve done a good job getting them to empathize with your heroine’s plight. They want to know what happens next.
So if you were writing a thriller about Fred, who has a secret life, you might know that Fred married his wife for her connections, but you don’t need to add this backstory. It’s in the past. It’s enough for your characters to touch on the backstory in dialogue.
In our article on narrative drive, we said that the less information you give readers the better, because curiosity keeps readers reading. You’re creating open loops:
Open loops are psychological strategies used most often as copywriting tricks. They’re hooks and unanswered questions. You can and should use open loops right throughout your novel.
Focus on your characters to write good stories
Readers read fiction for the characters. In some genres, like thrillers and science fiction, plot may seem to overshadow character development, especially with series characters.
Reread some scenes of your favorite bestselling novels. You’ll see that in bestselling fiction, characters drive the plot. For examples, look at classic fiction. Readers have enjoyed Pride & Prejudice for 200 years, solely because of the characters.
Use the above tips in your writing, and have fun. 🙂
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Revised: July 9, 2019