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Category : The Writing Craft
Teresa wrote to me and said, "I'd like to know about creating stronger characters in my novels."
There are a bunch of books out there on creating great characters, and all of them point to one basic idea: Give your characters something unique so that they are memorable. Let me toss out five quick things I think help make characters stick in the minds of your readers:
1. Give your characters something to do. This is a piece of advice I got from my writing instructor in college (famed fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin). She pointed out that I was trying to describe interesting people, or have them use colloquial terms, or have them dress a certain way…but they were flat. I was trying to tell about the characters, rather than allowing them to reveal themselves. As the author, I could picture them in my head, but my readers couldn't picture them on the page. The solution to making them more full? Give them something to do. That allows the characters to demonstrate who they are and what they're like, rather than forcing me, as the narrator, to simply tell everyone what they're like.
2. Show, don't tell. Yeah, yeah, you've heard this a million times from fiction editors. But it's one of the easiest ways to create more interesting characters on the page. Think about it…let's say you're trying to create a tense, Type A businessman as a secondary character in your thriller. If you tell the reader ("He felt nervous"), the character remains flat. It you show the reader ("He paced back and forth, chewed on his pencil, picked up his coffee cup, and wiped the sweat from his face"), the character begins to take on his own identity.
3. Give them attitude. One of the things I often see in historical and romance manuscripts is that the characters are all bland. The heroine probably has
Since many people are about to board a plane for a huge fiction-writing conference, let me continue in that vein… Some people have written to ask about creating strong characters in their fiction. If you're going to establish strong characters, the best things you can do are to give them dialogue that demonstrates who they are and give them something to do. Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of time describing your characters (unless there is some unique reason for doing so, like they are seven feet tall or they have a tattoo of Ohio on their forehead). Often writers will offer one descriptive fact, as sort of an advance organizer. But don't bother describing everything about their history, physical description, dental records, etc. And, of course, to create a great character I think you have to have somebody in mind — a real person, whom you've met and found interesting, and who you can talk about from your experience… not just some mystery individual you created in your head.
With that as an introduction, let me offer six tips for keeping readers talking to your characters…
1. History is made by big people. Big personalities, big dreams, big ideas. However, most stories need more conflict than "the big guy doesn't get what he wants." Interesting stories are often made by small, weak people. So give your characters (even your big characters) some weakness and you'll discover the readers can relate to them.
2. At the same time, page-turning novels are stories about special days, not ordinary days. So take that small, weak character, put him or her into an extraordinary circumstance. Kurt Vonnegut once said the best thing you can do in a novel is to create wonderful people and have the most awful things happen to them. He was right. So get the character to act big and strong after showing they are not
Since many of us are heading off to the great ACFW conference in order to rub shoulders with novelists, I should probably take on a "novel writing" question. Somebody wrote to me and asked, "As a first-time novelist, what advice can you give me to create a great, page-turning novel?"
My reply: Dialogue and action. That won't necessarily make for the deepest, or most thoughtful, or the most life-changing sort of book, but it will make your book a page-turner. A high sense of drama is necessary, of course. So is telling an interesting story at a brisk pace. (Whoever read a slow, rambling thriller?) Unresolved conflicts help. So do plot twists, and fascinating characters, or characters I like who are placed in tense situations. But if you stick to dialogue and action, you'll make your book more of a page-turner.
This leads to the age-old writing question about plot vs character, I suppose. When it comes to page-turners, I think the plot takes precedence. The action and situations dominate the nuances of character in a thriller or suspense novel. People in publishing have a saying: "Editors love characters. Readers love plots." That's a nice way for highbrows to basically tell you "deep thinkers love interesting characters in their novels, so if you focus on plot you're probably shallow." I've never really agreed with that assessment — in my view, everybody loves an interesting character…but it's the action that gets me turning pages in order to find out what happens next.
Years ago, in an interview in Saturday Review, novelist Elmore Leonard was asked what made his novels so successful. Here is a guy who has written at least a dozen bestsellers, and has kept up his success for a couple decades, so I was really focused on his answer. It was brilliant in its simplicity: "I tend to leave out the parts people skip."
That's great writing advice.
Back from soggy Scotland (just missed the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport by a few hours) and hoping to get caught up. Jennifer wrote to ask, "As an agent and a reader, are there writing errors that drive you crazy?"
Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work! I hate this! Really!!!
Here’s "another" one: The "author" who feels a "need" to put emphasized words in "quotes," since they apparently think it makes them look more "official." This is particularly tiresome when a "funny" author decides to put his "punchlines" in quotations. (Does anybody remember the episode of Friends where Joey kept putting "finger quotes" around certain "words," even though he didn’t understand how to do it?) Here’s an "idea" — cut the quotation marks in your "epic."
And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.
Fourth is the serial comma. Drives me crazy. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. An example: "Farnsworth visited Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and Djibouti." Note that there are five countries and four commas — one less than the list. Writers often drop the last comma, in an apparent attempt to make "Ireland and Djibouti" one country. (Similar to Trinidad and Tobaggo, if you’re into geography jokes.) Makes no sense at all.
Fifth is the adverbial ending "ly," which some authors insert regularly in an attemptly to sound scholarly. Note that this paragraph doesn’t start with the word "fifthly." From a strict editorial perspective, "fifth" is an adverb. To add "ly" to the end is to adverbialize an adverb. Why write "firstly" when it is clearer to write "first"? (Besides, if it’s a long list, can you really defend "thirteenthly"?)