We don't fall in love with plots. We don't even fall in love with concepts. Our brains are hardwired to relate to people, so for most readers, it's really all about the characters. After all, we're asking them to live with those characters for a minimum five or six hours, possibly a lot more. Ideally, we'd all love to write characters that will stay with readers forever, wouldn't we? (I know, I know. Ambitious much? Or maybe deluded is a better word. Still, a girl can dream. :D)
A couple of weeks ago, I posted the latest character worksheet I use before I start to write. I'll repost it here, too, in case anyone is interested.
I do one of these for every major character, and then refer to them as part of my "story bible" so I can keep track of things like eye color and backstory. I've learned by trial and error that if I skimp on any of the characters, I will usually end up with a sloooooow start to the book, and then lapse into mid-novel slump where I have a hard time getting myself (and my characters) energized. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as writer's inertia.
Beyond just knowing the character, I want to make sure I'm putting the right character on the page. Can that main character carry a whole novel. Is she someone readers want to read about?
Is She Active Instead of Passive, Positive Instead of Negative?
In other words, does she make things happen because she wants something instead of reacting to things because she wants to avoid something? That sounds like a small distinction, but when we read a character like that, we know instantly we're in for a ride. Think of your favorite characters. Didn't they go after what they wanted? Good, bad, or indifferent, they had goals, plans, passion. Something they wanted desperately. And that turned into action.
Is She Gutsy Enough to Fight Against Adversity Without Whining?
Okay, she can whine--a little. Better if she snarks though. Bitches, makes jokes, laughs in the face of danger even though she's scared spitless? That's a character I want to read about. Too brave, not scared at all, in other words, is boring. So is an incessant whiner. But a character who kicks a$$ and takes names even though she is scared? Sign me up. I'm already lining up to read that book.
Does She Refuse to Quit?
I love Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Okay, I love Bruce Willis in almost anything. But let's take Die Hard, for example. Bruce refuses to give up. He's barefoot, running through glass, explosions, and an ocean of over-muscled crooks who escaped from the covers of bad German romance novels. He loves his ex-wife though, and he'd not going to quit and let her die. Not an option. At all. He'll make jokes. He'll laugh at himself. He'll wince at the pain. But he jumps at every opportunity that presents itself. He's that Timex watch in the commercial--takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin', right up until that moment when everything looks like there is no way he can win--no chance in heck--so he thinks about giving up for a half-second, realizes quitting won't work for him, and goes right back to the agony of not letting the bad guy defeat him.
Is She Identifiable? Memorable? And Slightly Over-the-Top?
If I wanted to read about my next-door neighbor, I'm sure I could find her in a thousand unpublished manuscripts. She's boring because she is real. She's ordinary. Seriously, we all know her. The person we want to read about though is the person we don't know. The one we haven't read about yet--and then we want to understand what that person is all about. We need to find a way to relate to her, to understand her and put her in context. She is who she is because XXX -- insert situation we can sympathize with here. As readers, we're all pretty generous. We can even come to like a serial killer or a rapist, kind of, if we understand what made him that way, especially if whatever we don't like about him is the thing that's holding him back. As writers, on the other hand, we try so hard to make our characters "real" that often we forget to make them unique and memorable.
Is She Flawed?
As people, we want to be loved. We want to be perfect, so we hide our flaws. Or we try to, anyway. As writers, we do the same with our characters. It's human nature. We love them, so we try to protect them by making them strong and beautiful and kind and smart and nauseating. Really, we need to let them be selfish, or vain, or stubborn, or forgetful. Whatever. We need to let them suck at something. As long as whatever they suck at most is the very thing that they learn to fix by the end of the book. We've all heard this called the "fatal flaw" and we assume that's because it's the thing that endangers the protagonist's life. Yes, that's probably true. You could also look at it another way. Without a deep flaw, a deep wound, the character is doomed in the reader's mind.
Are you sitting down to write? Great. Quick. Think about your favorite characters. What made you love them? Now go forth and write THAT! :D
Happy character building,
Larger-than-Life-Characters by agent Sarah Davies
Donald Maass Character Checklist by Kathy Temean
Strong Heroes, Even Stronger Motivations by Jeannie Campbell
Creating Memorable Characters by Lee Masterson
Are you in Pain? Question for your character? by Darcy Pattison
Mentors and the Hero's Journey by Stephen Turner
Seven Common Character Types by Terri W. Erwin, II
Creating Villains People Love to Hate by Lee Masterson
The Other in Fiction: Creating Wonderfully Wicked Villains by Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD