Of all the elements of a good story, none are as important as your characters. They are so essential to your story taking life that every single sentence in your story needs to do one of two things:
1) Advance the action, or
2) Develop the characters.
Of course ‘action’ is really just characters doing stuff, so basically everything should involve your characters!
And what are characters? In their most pure form, they are real people. As the writer you have a lot of power, creating these people and placing them in the middle of the “movie” of your book. But just like a movie director, you have the big responsibility to cast characters the audience will LIKE, BELIEVE, and CARE ABOUT. Once you have real people built (not cardboard cut outs) you place them in your story and yell “action!”
1. How to place your protagonist into your story:
They say there are two types of stories that work best:
1) A very regular person put in an extraordinary situation, or
2) An extraordinary person put in a very normal situation.
Think about some of the most lovable characters we’ve known (I’m going to use movie analogies even though we’re talking about books, if that’s ok with you). Let’s take Superman. Why did we love him so much? He was extraordinary as it gets! The reason was because he was trapped in this very humdrum existence of earth, and furthermore he had to hide his identity as a very boring mere mortal.
Every single one of them WANTS SOMETHING in the world you created – true love, revenge against the guy who set them up and put them in jail, to overcome a fatal illness, to get a date to the prom with the most popular girl in school, to wrestle with their inner demons of alcholism, to climb the highest mountain in the world, to survive the war and get home, or to somehow get a hundred thousand dollars by Monday so their grandmother won’t get evicted. Whatever it is, what they want is REALLY important to them. The stakes need to be super high, and clear to the audience. Then you put them at the starting line in the race for that thing, and shoot off the starting gun.
But there are hurdles along the way – time pressure, circumstances, and even other real people who are running the race too, who want something equally as much. In fact, our main character may be nothing more than a hurdle to another character (the antagonist) who REALLY wants something, too – maybe even more than our hero! Watching the characters fight and claw and try to out-think and out-maneauver each other on the way to the finish line is what drives the book.
The harder the race, the more obstacles, the higher the stakes get. The more burning the desires, the more they fight each other on the way there, the better. But the most important thing is that we are ROOTING for our main character, the protagonist, because if we don’t care about them winning, then we’re not even interested in watching.
3. People are twice as motivated by avoiding pain as they are by trying to attain pleasure.
Use that! Like we talked about in the Basics of Story Structure, the main character is on a quest to get something or get something back that was taken from them.
When Andy Dufrain in Shawshank Redemption chipped away at the walls of his prison cell for a decade and crawled through a sewer pipe to get to freedom, you better believe he was motivated by avoiding further pain!
4. How do we build our characters?
Just like runners in the race, the contest doesn’t just start when the gun goes off. There were countless hours of training, personal setbacks, victories, and other races they ran against each other creating personal vendettas. So, too with characters – before you write one word about them in your story, give them a real former life.
In my latest book, South of Normal, I spent A LOT of time fleshing out my characters before I started writing. It’s a nonfiction memoir so these characters are people who exist in real life, so you might think I didn’t need to prepare them at all, but it was the opposite. For each character in the book I created a profile on a separate sheet of paper, sort of like an audition for them to be cast into my movie. I asked them a ton of questions and wrote and wrote about them, down to the most intimate detail. 90% of it never showed up in the book, but just like you can’t see the training that was done before a race, the characters in my book are bold, alive, real and breathing – larger than words.
Your hard work developing your characters will come out in subtle ways without even planning it – a favorite hat they wear, a look on their face when they eat ice cream, the way they are rabid about cheering for their favorite sports team, or that they’re still so upset over their last breakup.
Don’t forget, action and dialogue are the best ways to reveal our characters.
5. How do we make our characters likable?
There are five ways to make our characters endearing to the reader. But before I go into that list, I will point out that readers don’t want characters who are PERFECT, they want them AUTHENTIC. Human beings are flawed and remarkable human beings are often remarkably flawed. The bigger the flaws, quirks, and uncontrollable desires your characters have, the more interesting they will be.
We see our self, or someone close to us, in the character. When this happens the connection is immediate because there is something we already love/hate/or know already. Think about the movie Breakfast Club – almost all of us could find ourselves somewhere in that detention room! Were you the geek? The stoner? The loner? The athlete? It was all recognizable.
We’ve been there, too, and we’re thrilled that someone else is also struggling with the same thing, because it is no longer OUR problem, it’s the WORLD’S problem. How about the character Bridget Jones? Why did people love her so much? Because many people could relate to her frustrations, heartbreak, and the feeling that it was easier just to sit on the couch with a pint of ice cream than to deal with it all.
Complex, larger-than-life personalities emit charisma, just like in real life. Make us smile, laugh, or respect something within you, even if it’s misguided, and we will care. Just make sure that your heroes and villains set up bombs everywhere they go, not little firecrackers! And remember that it’s just as important to create huge, fun villains as it is heroes. Tyler Durden in Fight Club ROCKED! He was so twisted, cruel, and bonkers, and in fact was just a dual personality, but DAMN he was fun!
We all hold the capacity for good and evil. It is the struggle between the two, the good wolf and the bad wolf, which is a very human problem. Show the humanity in your characters by exposing both their good and bad qualities. There is nothing better than a villain who tells the kids to leave before he shoots up the place, or does the wrong thing for the right reason (Robin Hood). Give your protagonist a lot of flaws that they are struggling against, and your antagonists some very tender, human qualities that are worth redemption, even if they lose the battle for their souls. (Hannibal Lecter)
The character is facing a REAL mess. The odds are way against them to win the race and get out of it, and they will have some major decisions to make, as well as facing their biggest fears head on. The pressure, the stress, is overwhelming! The sacrifices the character has to make are beyond tolerance! As the reader we can’t wait to see how they handle it, on the edge of our seats and emotionally invested since we like them so much! I can’t think of a better example than poor, little Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings.
6. The stakes are high!
What stakes are attached to the outcome of the protagonist winning the race, or achieving their quest? Will their grandmother get evicted? Will they be doomed to a life of regret and mediocrity? Will the bad guys kill everyone if they don’t intervene? Will the aliens eat the Earth if they don’t save us???!!!!
If the stakes aren’t high, OR if we, the readers, don’t clearly know what they are, then what’s the point? We couldn’t care less! Sometimes the protagonist doesn’t even realize what the stakes are! (He doesn’t know there is a time bomb about to go off or the aliens are coming if he doesn’t destroy the transporter, or whatever). But as long as WE know, the stakes will be high. Remember “Back to the Future?” Do you know why it worked so well? Other than Michael J Fox being a very likable character, the stakes were HUGE! History would be changed and our protagonist and his family not even born if he didn’t get everything right!
How can you test your stakes? Apply this simple question to the story – if the protagonist stopped running the race, and walked away, what would happen? If the answer is “not much,” then no one is going to care.
7. How are we introduced to our characters?
They walk up and ask us for a match at the bus stop. They jump on the hood of our car when they’re running from someone. Or they rob the bank at gunpoint while we are making a deposit. Characters usually come into out lives (and our stories) with a splash, their actions leading the way. Or, every once and a while, we meet them at a party and forget their name ten times but eventually they grow on us.
8. So THAT is what they mean by “Show, don’t tell.”
Whether they step into our protagonist’s life like a stick of dynamite, or they are unassuming in the background and build in relevance, let their actions and dialogue stand on their own. That enables the READER to make the ultimate decision about who they are and their personality. Don’t SAY “He was honest,” instead say “He saw someone drop a dollar and ran down the street to give it back to them.”
Backstory and exposition are necessary, but there’s nothing worse than when a writer who goes on a five page explanation into who the character is and why they are great. Cut that out. Instead, show the character saying how hungry they are and then, when their sandwich comes, they give half of it to the homeless guy outside the restaurant window.
Leave room for the reader’s imagination to participate. Things won’t always be 100% clear, but they aren’t in real life, either. Someone doesn’t walk in a room and we instantly know everything about them, but we sure do pay attention to first impressions, their actions, and what they say. If someone winks at us in real life we don’t always know what it means, but they have our attention!
9. Character Description.
Which sounds better?
“The waitress came over, dirty blond, looking older than her age from the long nights of working at the café, her tongue sharpened by dealing with truckers, a white skirt and shirt with her name tag on it, covered by a knit sweater.”
“Flo came over and poured us a cup of black mud.”
If Flo isn’t a main character, then probably the second one is better, and most important, BRIEF. A whole character can be revealed by one quirk or description better than a list.
There is a side character in South of Normal who I described as looking like “a janitor at a rehab clinic.” What the hell does that mean? Who knows? But the reader will sure fill in the image with their imagination, and here’s the key – the character will be SO much more real to them, because THEY created their image in their own mind! THAT’S why less is more – you let them cast their own actor for that part in the movie, and they are emotionally and creatively invested.
Don’t always state the obvious. Mix all of our senses into a description, including the vibe that character gives off. (“It seemed like the flowers wilted a little when she walked by.”)
10. What is the character’s current emotional state?
Take inventory of a character’s emotional state as they show up in every scene. You can have a wonderful person who just had a super crappy day, so it’s ok to be inconsistent with characters as long as their cores don’t change much. My favorite character in South of Normal is a young lady who was under incredible stress and going through a really hard time in the beginning, but by the end we were best friends!
But as you are revealing their emotions, or even describing them, remember the first rule of show biz – always leave them wanting more!
Give the reader LESS than they need to know, and unveil the rest gradually, never MORE. Think of character development like strip poker – YOU know what’s underneath, but you’re going to keep the reader at the table – and betting big – by teasing them a little with the promise of what might be.
Now read about my character profile in the next column - including what kind of shoelaces they wear!
A list of questions to ask to flesh out each character:
If she won a million dollars she would… give it to charity? Throw a party? Complain about the taxes? Keep or quit her job?
Her secret is….EVERYONE has a secret! That’s the juicy stuff that motivates them, even if no one ever knows what it is.
If her friend was sick she would?
If she found a wallet on the street she would?
What is she is scared of?
What does she want more than anything else?
If she needed to borrow money she would...?
She is ashamed of...?
She is self conscious of...?
Her biggest dream is...?
Her best quality...?
Her biggest flaw...?
What motivates her?
Most embarrassing moment?
What is her relationship with her parents?
Does she play sports?
What was she like growing up?
Where does she shop?
What scars does she carry?
What emotional wounds haven’t healed?
Phobias? Tics? Quirks?
Write out some sample dialogue in this character’s voice, having fun with it. Notice voice and speech patterns, accents, and cultural/geographical nuances.
And the last one:
What kind of shoelaces does your character wear?
Why the hell is that relevant? Because it’s the little things – like what kind of shoelaces a character wears, or if they floss every day, or if they remember their mother’s birthday, or if they can’t stand to leave dishes in the sink overnight, that reveal more about their character than all of the generic, descriptive writing we could ever do. If you get down to those nitty gritty details, you can feel confident that your characters are ready to run the race – and win.
Now shoot that starting gun!
Don't miss Norm's new book,
The Queens of Dragon Town!
Norm Schriever is a best-selling author, expat, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. He travels the globe, telling the stories of the people he finds, and hopes to make the world a little bit better place with his words.