When telling a story, there is arguably nothing more important than character. Yes, there are many other aspects of storytelling that go into writing, but character sticks out the most. Think about some of your favorite movies. What do you remember most?
Titanic: When we talk about that movie, do we talk about a sinking ship, or do we talk about Rose & Jack and the scene in the car and how Rose said she would never let go and she did? I think it’s the latter. Silver Linings Playbook: Do we talk about how that movie handles mental illnesses and family and sports, or do we talk about how memorable Tiffany is because she’s sad and dancing and charming and a little scary? Or how Pat gives the best rant ever about a book? Or Iron Man: Do we love the suit or do we love Tony Stark? I think it’s pretty obvious.
Or heck, let’s look some of our favorite shows on TV. Supernatural: Is it the unique plot that keeps us watching, or the struggle of Sam and Dean and how much they continuously overcome? Doctor Who: Is it the sometimes bad CGI or the Doctor and his companions who keep us tuned in? Shameless: Maybe it’s drugs or gritty Chicago or bad parents, but I think it’s the great relationships between the Gallagher family and how much you hate them all sometimes, yet still love them. Friday Night Lights: Tim Riggins. Matt Saracen. Coach Taylor. Jason Street. Need I say more? Boy Meets World: It sure wasn’t the plot lines or the great hair that kept us tuned in to the Matthews family.
Whether or not you’ve watched those shows, characters are integral to stories--especially in books. But as important as they are, character development is one of the largest problems we see in manuscripts.
As the author of the book, you know your character. He or she is part of you, so when you’re telling the story it’s very easy to leave out key pieces of information that the reader must have in order to connect. If a reader doesn’t connect to your main character, they won’t connect to your plot or your beautiful writing either. We want to talk about some areas of character that keep readers from connecting—and how you can fix them. This is in no way an exhaustive list, as every character and writer are different, but these are problems we see frequently.
1. Character motivation
This is hands-down the most recurring problem with characters, so we’re going to talk about this one a little more than the others. A character needs a clear motivation. A character without clear motivation has no purpose, and with no purpose, there is no conflict, no driving force, no tension, and no story.
To figure out character motivation, ask yourself this: What does your MC want and what stands in the way?
The answer is motivation. (What does she want) It’s also conflict. (What stands in the way) These things go together because one is usually dependent on the other. Pick a book, any book, and within the first chapter of the story you know immediately what a character wants. You can even see it on most jacket copies. What drives the character and the whole book forward is usually the one thing she wants most in the whole world. (In that moment, anyway.)
Motivation is almost always a tangible thing.
This means that a character’s motivation can’t be “to be happy” unless the character has a plan for getting there. A character can’t get where he/she wants to be if he/she doesn’t know where that is. A good example of motivation is running a marathon. “I want to cross the finish line in a marathon in under 10 minutes.” If that’s my motivation, then every single thing I do will be to get me to that end goal.
Motivation can change as the story shifts—especially when a character doesn’t know what she really wants. Sometimes a character learns what she thinks she wants isn’t what she actually wants. If the character wants to run a marathon in ten minutes but then sprains her ankle, her new motivation can be simply to finish the marathon. Even if it takes an hour. Whether it stays the same or changes, the end always resolves motivation somehow.
Without motivation, a character can’t be compelling. Motivation is the key to compelling characters—when a reader understands what a character really wants they become invested in the choices that character makes and what happens to them as a result.
Motivation drives the character, and conflict tests their resolve. Both have to be present to make a character and ultimately, a plot.
Voice is one of those things that writers have, or they don’t. You can’t manufacture voice, but if it’s not there then it’s important to figure out why it’s not there. Start with motivation. Do some character exercises. Get to know the person you are writing about or the person who is telling a story. Writing a character is a relationship—you can’t marry someone you don’t know anything about, and you can’t write them either.
3. Internal monologue
This is one of those areas that makes or breaks a character, especially in first person. (This also applies to third, but in third it is slightly different.) We have to know what the MC is experiencing in order to understand her motivation, conflict and growth. Many writers come off as scared to go beyond the very basic emotions. Don’t be. Dig deep. It’s those vulnerable moments—the curiosity, the uncertainty, the passion—that make characters relatable. Let us see a character being vulnerable, even if it’s only on the inside. Vulnerability does not equal weakness, but strength. It’s in that vulnerability when you can prove yourself.
Beyond that, if a book is in first person, the whole world and cast of characters are revealed through the MC. There has to be reactions to what’s happening around the MC, to think and feel things that can’t be said. To see things we don’t—especially when it comes to other characters. Characters that study others, as well as their surroundings, and respond internally and through dialogue connect with readers better because studying makes them more trustworthy and relatable. You don’t need to spend extraordinary amounts of time developing these things, but one line or two lines that delve deeper into the character will flush it all out more for the reader, especially if you do this continuously.
4. Show vs. Tell
We’re going to talk a lot more about show vs. tell later in the week, but this is one element of writing that also affects character. (and really, all the elements of writing that we’ll be talking about this week.) Show vs. tell is probably the most dangerous element of writing. When in doubt, I’m of the belief that it’s better to show too much than not enough.
If you are telling us what your MC feels/thinks/sees then we aren’t getting it from your MC, which means we aren’t connected. And when we aren’t connected with the protagonist, then the odds of continuing to read the book decreases. Show us what a character is thinking, feeling, seeing (like we said above) and we’ll be rooting for your protagonist instead of trying to understand them.
Keep whatever you tell us about your MC the same. If he/she loves crunchy peanut butter, that’s something that is true to that character. If he/she hums songs when thinking then it’s true to that character. If he/she chews on pen caps, or drums fingers, or bites his/her nails—then keep it consistent. Don’t let other characters take on traits that your MC has. Don’t let those traits disappear in the story. Don’t change them halfway through from crunchy peanut butter to jelly. In every aspect, make your character and the motivation consistent.
These are only a few aspects of characters. If you are writing a book, then we really advise you to have someone else examine your characters. We never see the things we are closest to, and characters are too important in a story to be weak.
There are many more elements of character than the ones we mention, but by tackling these five areas first, you’re likely to solve your character issues and make them as memorable and connectable as Tim Riggins.(And we all love Tim Riggins.)
This post is provided by Between the Line Edits, a freelance editing company specializing in NA/YA fiction composed of three industry professional editors (Danielle Ellison, Briana Dyrness and Patricia Riley) who have more than twenty manuscripts under their experience. BLT Editors are dedicated to helping writers shape great stories. Their goal is to give you, the writer, develope the tools that will help you get where you want to be. Connect with them on twitter @BTLEdits and get more information on their services on their website.