Monday, July 20, 2009

Build Characters with Depth

Ok. You began with a good sketch of your protagonist for your plot-driven novel. As you wrote your book, he practically came alive for you and veered your story in ways you never intended, making your work exceptionally better than you'd planned, but still, something is off. Test readers, or worse, agents, are saying they loved your twists, the suspense was riveting, but your main guy was one-dimensional…not fleshed out…not believable. Hmmm? Where did you go wrong?

I've read books that were packed with conflict but not so engaging. These are generally works readers on Amazon will say were strong in plot but weak in characterization. In creative writing class, after you've made your character sketch, this is how we’re told to write. Let every scene end with some kind of disaster, where a goal is not fully met, an answer is not found, a hero turns towards certain peril. The problem with having every scene be about achieving a goal or fighting through conflict is it can leave your work feeling stark…and it probably is. All scenes need to be related to the story, they need to be pertinent, but they don’t ALL have to be about having a goal or showing a conflict. Sometimes it’s important to show a piece of a puzzle or a hunter getting closer to his prey or a phone conversation after another nightmarish date or a police officer tucking her daughter into bed at night. Don’t get so wrapped up in structure that your work can't breath and be told in its own unique way.

Unless your audience is middle-grade boys who care more about blood, battle and boogers, (Good title!), don’t cheat readers. You should aim for both solid plotting and intriguing characters. Delve deeper and find out who your characters are, who they truly are, from top to bottom, inside out and then present that to readers.

With my novel, Kings & Queens, readers are always asking me what’s happening with my characters or how they’re doing as though they’re real people. When I tell those inquiring minds I’m writing a sequel, they say they can’t wait to pick up with their lives again. What lives? They’re not alive, people! But they almost feel like they are, even to me, like they’re living off in Fantasia or a parallel universe. That’s what you want. Readers to feel like they’ve met real people and to feel a little bit sad and miss them when the ride is over.

Here are some things you can do to ensure your main characters pop off the page.

Humanize: No character, friend or foe, is all good or all bad. Characters needs various shades and facets to stand out and be believable and identifiable to readers. Your villains need to have a dash of something good, even if it's just concern for the environment, or their motivations need to be clear, and your heroes or heroines need to have flaws and weaknesses. Perfect characters are bores on the page.

Layer: Make sure you’ve peppered your narrative with your main character’s tastes, interests, contradictions, quirks, props (lucky sneakers, glasses bent just right so they don't appear crooked on his slightly uneven ears), ghosts from the past, secrets, connections to other people who never grace the pages of your book like grandmas and old lovers. Characters need to feel like real people, who have lived their lives up until the moment you started to pen their circumstances. Layering will give your characters greater depth and dimension. However, your work should NOT be so saturated that it creates drag. Attempt to show much of this or spill it out through dialogue and action. Balance is key. If a point doesn’t belong or is too obtrusive, get rid of it.

Texturize: Don’t forget to tickle the senses beyond what’s seen and heard. By showing how your character responds to chilly mist, to the wall of scorching humidity when he steps out of his hotel in Shanghai, to the salty anchovies on his boss’s pizza, to the peppery chocolate scent emanating from the kitchen where her mom is baking another batch of experimental brownies, you can add texture to both your scene and character at the same time.

Shift: Let your heroine take a detour from her mapped out sketch and break type. When pressure is applied or danger bursts in or a grim diagnosis is given, real people deal and cope in different ways. They do stupid things, make mistakes, crumble, take wrong turns, cry, turn to God, say things they later regret, backpedal, contemplate suicide. So in fiction, your characters can do this. Shake things up and surprise readers. Just remember, every major action a character takes in fiction should stem from some sort of stimulus. As long as you make your variation believable and make it seem like an appropriate response or action by your MC, readers will buy it. If your heroine becomes too wimpy or stalls too long, readers will stop caring. No one likes a wimp or a loser. Keep the story moving. Kick your MC in the butt.

Show: Are you doing too much telling? Look for places you may have been able to show what you told. Readers will become more drawn into your work if they can experience what the character does. Showing helps to transport readers into your fictional world and identify with your hero. You can reveal so much character through speech and action.

Push: Do your characters have goals? All point of view characters need to want something in order for readers to care: revenge, love, justice, one day of tranquility, an Ivy League education. Up the stakes and the opposition. Make your MC work harder to attain his goals. Show the struggle, sweat, tears, determination, disappointment, passion. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds makes victory all the sweeter. Don't hold back or be afraid to stack up the obstacles. That creates tension and suspense, which makes for an all around stronger work.

Expose: Get into your character's mind and explore their desires and motivations. The more fully you relay this information to readers, the more readers will care about the outcome and connect. Sometimes characters live behind a facade or they vary their persona based on the company they're in. They act prim and proper with coworkers, cut loose with friends, or they say one thing and think another. Look at The Good Son. The parents are oblivious to their son's evil bent, but little by little he exposes it to his cousin. Allow your characters to reveal their innermost selves.

Build those memorable characters. You can do it. Give your babies every chance to not only reel in readers but leave a lasting impression.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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