In the classic horror movie Frankenstein, Colin Clive, overacting as Dr. Frankenstein, shouts, “IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIIIIIIVE!” He’s thrilled to the core when his creation takes on real life.
The doc was on to something. That’s how it feels when a writer creates compelling, rounded characters. Cardboard cutouts don’t excite you or your readers. Living, breathing characters do.
While there are many aspects of great character work, the following three features are always part of the mix.
Compelling characters have a way of looking at the world that’s uniquely their own. If you’re writing in first-person point of view, attitude should permeate the voice of the narrator. Lissy Jablonski, Julianna Baggott’s protagonist in Girl Talk, is smart, witty and a bit cynical. One thing she’s not is dull. We learn a lot about Lissy from her singular voice. Here’s how she describes an old boyfriend:
He’d been a ceramics major because he wanted to get dirty, a philosophy major because he wanted to be allowed to think dirty, a forestry major because he wanted to be one with the dirt, and a psychology major because he wanted to help people deal with their dirt. But nothing suited him.
In third-person point of view, a character shows attitude primarily through dialogue and thoughts. In L.A. Justice, we’re given a peek inside the head of Nikki Hill, the deputy D.A. who’s the main character in the Christopher Darden/Dick Lochte legal thrillers. In one scene she reacts to her superior, the acting D.A. He’s a man of two personalities that she calls “Dr. Jazz” and “Mr. Snide.”
In the office he was the latter, bent and dour, with an acid tongue and total lack of social grace. … At the moment, he was definitely in his Mr. Snide mode.
This is a quick look at Nikki’s attitude toward authority, which is developed throughout the novel.
The best way to find your character’s unique views is to fully understand the person you’re writing about. Try creating a free-form journal in the character’s voice. It’s OK if you don’t know what the voice is going to sound like when you start. Keep writing, fast and furious, in 10- to 20-minute stretches. A voice will begin to emerge.
Have the character think about such questions as:
- What do you care most about in the world?
- What really ticks you off?
- If you could do one thing, and succeed at it, what would it be?
- What people do you most admire and why?
- What was your childhood like?
- What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?
Let the answers come without editing. Your goal isn’t to create usable copy (though you’ll certainly find some gems). Rather, you want to get to know, deeply, the character with whom you’re going to spend an entire novel.
Novels are about challenges and threats to your hero, and that means he’s going to have to show courage. This creates a rooting interest in the character, always a good thing for readers.
In Rose Madder, Stephen King gives us a protagonist who’s weak and vulnerablea horribly abused wife. In the prologue we see Rose Daniels, pregnant, savagely beaten by her husband. The section ends, “Rose McClendon Daniels slept within her husband’s madness for nine more years.”
Chapter One begins with Rose, bleeding from the nose, finally listening to the voice inside her that says leave. She argues with herself. Her husband will kill her if she tries. Where will she go? But she finally works up the courage to open the front door and take “her first dozen steps into the fogbank which was her future.”
Every step she takes now requires courage. Rose is unprepared for dealing with the outside world, with simple things like getting a bus ticket or a job. And all the while she knows her husband’s going to be tracking her. Still, she moves forward, and we root for her. It would’ve been easy for King to spend 10 chapters detailing the abuse Rose took from her husband. But he knew that would have been too much “taking it.”
If your novel seems to be dragging, one of the first places to look is at the heart of your lead character. Is he giving up too easily? Has she been taking it too long? Are there too many scenes where he’s thinking and not doing?
Go back and put some fight in an earlier scene. Get the hero’s dander up again, make him take some action against a person or circumstance. Whether it’s as simple as taking a step into the unknown or charging ahead into a dangerous battle, courage bonds your readers with the main character.
Whenever the story starts to drag, Raymond Chandler counseled, “Bring in a guy with a gun.” That’s the element of surprise. A character who never surprises us is dull by definition.
Surprising behavior often surfaces under conditions of excitement, stress or inner conflict. Archie Caswell, the 14-year-old protagonist of Han Nolan’s When We Were Saints, is torn about his experience of the divine. Alone on a mountain, he:
“… dug his hands into the ground beneath him, pulling up pine needles and dirt. He threw it at the trees. He picked up some more and threw it, too.”
He berates God, then asks God’s forgiveness. Not something we expect from a heretofore normal, trouble-making kid.
This element can work in your novel, too. Put your central character in trouble, ratchet up the tension and let her behavior surprise you.
If you plumb the depths of your characters’ lives by exploring these three aspects, your fiction will truly come alive.