Tag Archives: Famous writing quotes series /

Focus on Craft: How to Create Sympathetic Characters

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Monster

Is it just me or is time accelerating? If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, congratulations! You’re just about to hit a milestone: the end of Week 1. Which means you’re feeling either euphoric, or scared out of your pants. Today I’m reaching into the archive for a topic that’s important at every stage of novel writing: creating characters your readers will want to spend 50,000+ words with. Whether you’re still in the early stages or polishing your ending, it’s worth stepping back to gauge whether your main characters are pulling their weight around here.

HOW TO CREATE TRULY COMPELLING CHARACTERS

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.
” – Stephen King

How’s that for an awesome quote? I thought it would be perfect to kick off a new series where I take a quote or piece of advice from a famous author and talk about ways to apply it to your writing.

So let’s talk about sympathy.

Stephen King is hitting upon one of the most important skills you can have as a writer—the ability to create an emotional bond between your readers and your characters. Without that, it won’t make much difference what happens when the “monsters” come out. And by the way, this is vital not only in fiction, but memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction as well. Ever come across a first-person essay or memoir that made you say, “Give me a break! This guy/gal is way too arrogant”? You can substitute shallow, close-minded, or otherwise unlikeable. . . the point is, you probably dropped that book before the plot even took off.

So how do you go about making a character sympathetic? Here are a few examples:

Stir in some complexity. One of the biggest turn-offs in fiction is a flat character. In real life, people are multi-faceted. What makes people interesting is that we rarely can predict exactly how they’ll behave in a particular situation, and that’s because we all have so many layers to our personalities. The best writers know how to build that same complexity into their characters. On one hand, you want your readers to feel like they know your character intimately, like they can count on him in some way. But if he’s too one-dimensional, we’ll have the feeling that we can predict his every move, and that means you’ve taken that trust-building too far. Creating complexity is a big topic and I’ll go into it further in an upcoming post, but to start, try thinking about how you behave differently with some of the people you’re closest to in your life. Who are you with your spouse? With your parents? Your boss? There’s only one you, but you probably have a slightly different persona or demeanor with each of these people. How can you play that up in your writing? The more real your characters feel, the more likely your readers will care about them.

Give the character a (forgivable) flaw. You’ve probably heard this before: a character who is too perfect can be as problematic as one who is unredeemable. Why? Because it’s just not realistic. How boring would Indiana Jones have been without his exasperating stubbornness? And would women and girls the world over have fallen for Edward without the brooding (but not sullen) or self-sacrificing (but not masochistic) sides of his personality? A well-placed flaw makes a character easier to identify with (“That’s something I’d do—I’m pretty headstrong, too.”) And it can make us admire him even more if he’s able to overcome it. Just be careful not to overdo the flaw, or you could end up with the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Put the character in a painful situation. You don’t literally have to turn monsters loose, à-la-Stephen King. In literary fiction, readers like to see how characters deal with the kind of thing that could happen (or perhaps is happening) in their lives: caring for an aging parent, surviving a divorce or infidelity from a partner, a betrayal of some kind from a son or daughter. In sci fi or fantasy, it could mean a choice between family and country/kingdom, or between honor and personal happiness. But regardless of the genre, the situation has to resonate with the reader—meaning on some level she has to recognize the character’s pain or believe she or someone she knows could experience it. You’re not likely to have to battle orcs or evil Druids to save your homeland, but you probably know someone who has served in the military and been sent overseas. Or maybe you’ve had to move away from your home and family—against your wishes—to take a job. A difficult situation makes our hearts go out to the character and creates underlying tension: will he make the noble choice we hope he will? Especially with that flaw we’ve started to notice?

***

Best wishes as you whip those protagonists into shape!

Getting Both Ends of Your Novel Right (Thank You, Mr. Chekhov!)

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WomanEditing“My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.”
  – Anton Chekhov

So here I am with the second installment of the Famous Writing Quotes series. This one caught my eye because it’s a problem I see often in my editing work.

What I think Chekhov is referring to is the fact that writers tend to work more self-consciously on the first and last sections of a story, because we’ve all been told those are the most important for catching readers’ attention and leaving them satisfied. In that sense, the writing here is less authentic, less “true,” than the middle sections, where you’ve become so immersed in the story and the merciless task of getting it on paper that you’ve forgotten about trying to impress anyone.

Let’s look at a couple of things that can go wrong and how to tackle this issue in your self-editing process.

Beginnings

So, how much do you cut?

Probably more than you think. Try going back to your opening pages and asking yourself: how much of this is just me getting to know my characters? You may be spending precious pages telling readers about your character’s childhood, her likes and dislikes, her dreams. But is anything happening? If not, it’s time to whittle it down to only the most essential descriptive information and back story and begin weaving it in once you find the spot where the real story begins.

How to do that?

Identify your inciting incident (also called the plot catalyst)—the thing that sparks the action and sets your plot in motion. (For a nice overview, read this article.) It’s not that you have to have it on page 1, but it had better happen very early on (it can even happen off-stage, so to speak, before p. 1, especially in mysteries). In The Hobbit, Bilbo didn’t start his journey till p. 34 (of my edition), but he sure knew something was afoot by p. 5, when a big stubborn wizard came to pay him a visit. That was the spark.

The scary part is that in doing this, you may well be faced with a bigger question: do I have a plot that’s strong enough to carry readers through an entire novel? Sometimes writers are disheartened to find that they’ve been writing back story, or simply listing events for the first hundred pages, with no real story arc to connect them. After paring that down to a bit of essential descriptive information, you’re left with only a piece of what you thought was a finished novel. In that case, it’s time to make something compelling happen to these wonderful characters you’ve created—without a strong plot to act as the spine, you’re left with just a bag of rattling bones.

Endings

Now to the other end of the writing journey. What could go so wrong with an ending that Chekhov wants us to cross it out?

Well, lots of things, but the one I’ve seen the most in manuscripts over the years is the “race to the finish line.” This is where the writer has set everything up beautifully, the action is about to explode. . . and then you notice there are only five pages left in the book. Even if the right things happen to create a satisfying ending, there simply isn’t room to develop it and get the pacing right. You can’t rush the climax—or the resolution—of your novel.

There’s an easy way to know whether you’ve got it right: ask people. If you have a writing partner, or better yet, a critique group (the more eyes on your manuscript, the better), ask them to be brutally honest about the final pages. Did the ending feel rushed, the writing sparse? And what was their gut reaction to what happened to the characters? A good ending always gets a strong response—be it positive or negative. You’ll never get everyone to like it (every NYT bestseller has a critic or two who hated the ending), but they should always feel something. A lukewarm response means back to the drawing board.

If you see any of these problems, it’s vital to sit down and do the slicing—or the fleshing out—at both ends of your novel, no matter how much you wanted this to be your final draft. It could make all the difference.

There’s still time to win my query critique giveaway! Just post a comment here on Word Cafe or on Facebook and mention “query critique drawing.” I’ll announce the winners on January 31. Best of luck!

How to Create Sympathetic Characters (Famous Writing Quotes Series)

Standard

Monster“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.
” – Stephen King

How’s that for an awesome quote? I thought it would be perfect to kick off a new series where I take a quote or piece of advice from a famous author and talk about ways to apply it to your writing.

So let’s talk about sympathy.

Stephen King is hitting upon one of the most important skills you can have as a writer—the ability to create an emotional bond between your readers and your characters. Without that, it won’t make much difference what happens when the “monsters” come out. And by the way, this is vital not only in fiction, but memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction as well. Ever come across a first-person essay or memoir that made you say, “Give me a break! This guy/gal is way too arrogant”? You can substitute shallow, close-minded, or otherwise unlikeable. . . the point is, you probably dropped that book before the plot even took off.

So how do you go about making a character sympathetic? Here are a few examples:

Stir in some complexity. One of the biggest turn-offs in fiction is a flat character. In real life, people are multi-faceted. What makes people interesting is that we rarely can predict exactly how they’ll behave in a particular situation, and that’s because we all have so many layers to our personalities. The best writers know how to build that same complexity into their characters. On one hand, you want your readers to feel like they know your character intimately, like they can count on him in some way. But if he’s too one-dimensional, we’ll have the feeling that we can predict his every move, and that means you’ve taken that trust-building too far. Creating complexity is a big topic and I’ll go into it further in an upcoming post, but to start, try thinking about how you behave differently with some of the people you’re closest to in your life. Who are you with your spouse? With your parents? Your boss? There’s only one you, but you probably have a slightly different persona or demeanor with each of these people. How can you play that up in your writing? The more real your characters feel, the more likely your readers will care about them.

Give the character a (forgivable) flaw. You’ve probably heard this before: a character who is too perfect can be as problematic as one who is unredeemable. Why? Because it’s just not realistic. How boring would Indiana Jones have been without his exasperating stubbornness? And would women and girls the world over have fallen for Edward without the brooding (but not sullen) or self-sacrificing (but not masochistic) sides of his personality? A well-placed flaw makes a character easier to identify with (“That’s something I’d do—I’m pretty headstrong, too.”) And it can make us admire him even more if he’s able to overcome it. Just be careful not to overdo the flaw, or you could end up with the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Put the character in a painful situation. You don’t literally have to turn monsters loose, à-la-Stephen King. In literary fiction, readers like to see how characters deal with the kind of thing that could happen (or perhaps is happening) in their lives: caring for an aging parent, surviving a divorce or infidelity from a partner, a betrayal of some kind from a son or daughter. In sci fi or fantasy, it could mean a choice between family and country/kingdom, or between honor and personal happiness. But regardless of the genre, the situation has to resonate with the reader—meaning on some level she has to recognize the character’s pain or believe she or someone she knows could experience it. You’re not likely to have to battle orcs or evil Druids to save your homeland, but you probably know someone who has served in the military and been sent overseas. Or maybe you’ve had to move away from your home and family—against your wishes—to take a job. A difficult situation makes our hearts go out to the character and creates underlying tension: will he make the noble choice we hope he will? Especially with that flaw we’ve started to notice?

***

I hope your writing year is off to a great start! If you’re at the query letter stage, there’s still time to enter my critique giveaway. Just mention “query letter critique drawing” in a comment here on the blog, or on the Word Café Facebook page.

Want more information about my editing services? You can email me at anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com, or check out my recent interview with writer Bethany Hensel.