Want to Write Stronger Characters?

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MicroscopeYou’ve probably heard it said that one of the top things agents and editors look for in a novel is unforgettable characters. Characters who embody a difficult balance: strong but somehow flawed (allowing potential for growth), moral but not too saintly (because that would be boring), consistent but not without quirks (because real people have multifaceted personalities).  But how can you be sure to achieve such a feat?

One of the best ways is by getting to know your characters better. Try this. Sit down and free write, in your character’s own voice, his or her description of or reaction to the following:

  • a crowded public place
  • a messy room
  • his favorite drink (alcohol or otherwise)
  • a food he just tasted again after many years
  • his car
  • his kids sitting next to him on the plane or on a bench
  • someone else’s kids sitting next to him on the plane or on a bench

Of course, feel free to add more ideas of your own, and make substitutions where needed, e.g. a horse or a spaceship in place of the car if you’re not writing contemporary fiction. Then try the exercise again. This time write about a specific memory that each of these items triggers for your character, once again writing in the character’s own voice.

With any luck, once this is finished you’ll have filled in concrete details about things you’d already intuited: is he a loner or gregarious? OCD or a bit of a slob? Which fond memories helped shape the person he strives to be? What haunts him from the past?

The best fictional characters make us believe they are flesh and blood. That’s because the author saw them that way. Get to know your characters on that level, and the “unforgettable” part will take care of itself.

3 responses »

  1. I think one of the mistakes some writers make is in assuming that a character can be “developed” by assigning a near-random flaw or defect. Living, breathing characters don’t come from a checklist of traits. The best ones grow through discovery, and that’s why I like this exercise so much. Otherwise, it can be really problematic–the character has “flaw” tacked on like a sticky note, and seems to be yelling “Look at me, I’m 3-D!”

    I also think it’s a mistake to assume that to create a three-dimensional character, we need to give him (or her) something glaringly “flawed.” What follows this kind of idea is often a morality tale. The fearful becomes courageous at the right moment; the brash learns how to be kind, the self-centered grows up to think of others. Now, on one level this isn’t so bad. On another, it creates its own kind of predictability and oversimplification.

    The changes in real people, even under pressure, are often more nuanced. For instance, they may not change in temperament or values, but they may learn to see things differently. Or they may find it’s logical to make a different choice during a crisis than they ever anticipated. Sometimes their interior journey focuses on resolving some crisis from the past, and once they make peace with that earlier trauma, they can move on. In a case like this, they have changed, yes. But not necessarily in essentials, only in viewpoint.

    Yes, I have sort of a soapbox about this. 🙂

    Thanks for a great exercise and an interesting post!

  2. Thank YOU, Lucy, for these insightful comments! I couldn’t agree more with your criticism of creating flaws just for the sake of it. There are probably a lot of cases where this is the reason readers are turned off by a character.

  3. Pingback: Mind Sieve 5/20/13 | Gloria Oliver

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