Persuasive characters keep a good story aloft and your readers involved. Whether you lean toward the literary, with prose that would make a cold-blooded insurance adjuster weep, or are creating your genre magnum opus—with rapping vampire detectives, drug-dealing Senators, and naked Kardashians racing to break the code to eternal youth without telemarketers—unless your characters are believable, very few readers will remain awake through the second explosion. Even if your book's only living inhabitants are fire-breathing alien weasels, they need to be relatable fire-breathing alien weasels.
This guest post is by Grant Jarrett. Originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, Jarrett lived in Manhattan for twenty years before moving to Marin County, CA, where he now works as a writer, ghostwriter, editor, musician, and occasional songwriter. His publishing credits include numerous magazine articles, essays, short stories, and More Towels, his coming-of-age memoir about life on the road. His debut novel, Ways of Leaving, won the Best New Fiction category in the 2014 International Book Awards. The House That Made Me, his 2016 anthology about the meaning of home, was chosen as an Elle “Trust Us” book. Jarrett is an avid cyclist, skier, and surf skier.
So where do you find these characters? How do you make them breathe?
1. Observe the people around you.
Examine how they speak, how they behave, their tics and twitches, pauses and stutters, the phrases and movements they repeat. Notice, too, what they omit, how they sometimes express themselves without words, how they sometimes choose not to express themselves at all. That, too, can have meaning. Analyze what makes them distinctly them and use it. Steal from life; that's what it's there for.
2. People are multidimensional.
Their flaws and contradictions are what make them interesting (think Hitler and his apparent affection for his dogs). Without some humanizing, sometimes contradictory characteristics, or some deeper history, a villain becomes no more than a pale symbol, a cliché. Similarly, a perfect protagonist is little more than a cartoon, one-dimensional and as plausible as a moose on ice skates. Most people are neither heroes nor villains. They are more complex, more interesting, more like us. Endow your characters with flaws, faults, weaknesses. Allow your heroes to fail and your villains an occasional success (without electing them President, please). Create characters who are rich and complex, flawed and sometimes contradictory, and your readers will find the depth required to immerse themselves.
3. Be compassionate, or at least empathetic toward your characters.
When writing, avoid passing judgment on even those characters who do terrible things. Your job is not to judge them, but to portray them honestly and accurately. Let readers see them clearly and draw their own conclusions. Let them find the truth. This search and discovery will keep them reading and caring and believing.
In my latest novel there are three main characters, very different from one another, with distinct voices and vastly disparate viewpoints. One is uneducated and crude, another has the bombastic verbosity of a wizard wannabe, and the third is an educated middle-American grade school teacher. Their voices are unmistakably their own. I did dozens of revisions in an attempt to ensure consistency and make each character more real, more alive. I am not suggesting that all the characters in your novel should possess quirky individual voices, strange dialects, and bizarre verbal tics, just that (unless you are David Mamet, in which case, why are you reading this and can you please send me money?) a five-year-old homeless child from Newark should not "sound" the same as a 65-year-old Oxford Professor of Pomposity from Wales.
5. Humanize your characters
Remember what we share, the aspects of being human that connect us, the needs and desires and joys and disappointments and hurts, the physical aches and pains, the self-doubt, the suspect motivations, the unexpected acts of kindness that define us. If you create characters that you care about, that you believe, characters who are real enough to make you laugh or cry or punch the wall in rage, your readers will believe and care. But don't expect me to plaster your wall.
6. Trust your characters.
When I hit a roadblock it's often because I'm trying to force a character to do or say something he or she simply would not do or say. Knowing better than I do, they simply go on strike, demanding more credible working conditions. Of course people sometimes act in ways contradictory to what you know, or think you know, about them, but when they do it reveals something about who they are and alters your perception of them. If you bend them into unnatural positions without recognizing the consequences, your characters will cease to be compelling and believable. Rather than asking someone to perform duties clearly outside his or her job description, find someone more suited to murdering the psychotic haberdasher or stealing the tainted gherkins or seducing the wily blowfish or whatever is required to move your story forward. Or let the story lead you down an unexpected path.
Once you've laid the groundwork, given your characters life, and placed in their paths obstacles of substance, your story will begin to take on a life of its own, creating its own momentum. Be sensitive to the life that's flourishing there; give it the opportunity to live and breathe, to enable the story and its players to move forward and forge new paths driven by the fictive world and beings you've put in place. If you allow that mysterious process to reveal its own special truth it may transport you to unexpected places and reveal to you a story even more compelling and true than the one you initially envisioned, surprising you and, more importantly, your readers. And you may find you don't need those alien weasels.
Want more? Check out Plot Versus Character:
Plot Versus Character is a hands-on guide to creating a well-rounded novel that embraces both of these crucial story components. In this book, you'll learn to:
—Create layered characters by considering personality traits, natural attributes, and backgrounds
—Develop your character's emotional journey and tie it to your plot's inciting incident
—Construct a three-act story structure that can complement and sustain your character arc
—Expose character backstory in a manner that accentuates plot points
—Seamlessly intertwine plot and character to create a compelling page-turner filled with characters to whom readers can't help but relate
—And much more
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.