Characters are the building blocks of books. Done well, they can drive a bestselling career—despite weakness in plotting, pacing, and structure. Done badly, they can torpedo a clever story.
Is your character valid? Does he ‘feel’ like he’s a real person?
Is he connected? Does he have family and friends? Have they helped “form” him? Who does he love? Who does he care for?
Does the character react to the world you’ve painted around him?
Characterize him with actions, not just description and dialog.
Balance the scales—for every strength, give your character a corresponding weakness or vulnerability.
Balance the scales a little more—create an appropriate villain to challenge the strengths of your hero. For example: Sherlock Holmes—Moriarty, Batman—Joker, “The Profiler”—Jack, Steve Carella—the Deaf Man.
Know what your character wants—then make sure that your book is plotted to make it hard to get.
Know what your character fears—then make sure your book is plotted so that he must face that fear and either master it, or at the very least confront it.
Know what your character dislikes—and use that to amplify the stakes in several scenes. For example: Indiana Jones—snakes.
Use the tools of modern psychology, if it helps you—such as gender studies.
Make a bible—every time you add a character into a manuscript, write down the character’s name, any character traits you’ve gifted him with, and the scene you’ve involved him with. Add to this bible every time you add new layers to a character. Six chapters later, when the character pops up again, you can thumb through the bible and keep your characters consistent.
Let your characters create your story, or let your story create your characters, but make sure that the two are right for each other.
Use stereotypes to your advantage—either letting them shape the outline of your character, or letting your character play against them.
Before You Begin . . .
Understand the conventions of the kind of book that you’re planning to write.
Have a good understanding of your major characters—know their backgrounds and personalities well enough to predict how they’d react in most situations. And listen to those characters, once you know them. When a story goes haywire, it’s usually because a writer is trying to force a character to do something that goes against the grain of that character’s personality.
Have a good understanding of the central conflict of the book.
Make sure the central conflict and the characters match up well. (For example, don’t send a superhero after a bad hairstylist. Superheroes save the world. You need somebody superficial and vain to go after that hairstylist.)
Have some idea of the beginning, middle, and end of your book. You can outline it obsessively, or start with a general idea in the back of your head. Regardless, it helps a lot to know where you are ultimately going when you sit down to write a book.
Have some idea of your setting when you sit down to write a book. Good world building is something that enriches every novel, whether the setting is real or imagined.
Don’t overload any scene with the products of your research. The telling detail, rather than endless lists of what you’ve learned, will be what sticks in the reader’s mind. In other words, show the reader a covered wagon, don’t tell them how the wagon was built and how many laborers were involved.
Strike a balance between dialogue and narrative. A “gray” page isn’t appropriate to commercial fiction (all text, no dialogue, no paragraph breaks), though it may be just the ticket for a scholarly paper.
Start each scene somewhere interesting, build it to a climax, then set the hook for the next scene.
Each scene should reveal something important about either your characters or your plot. If it doesn’t, no matter how pretty it is, it wastes space and reader attention.
When you’re stuck, ask yourself some of the following questions:
What’s the worst thing I can do to this character right now?
What’s the best thing that could happen to this character right now?
Why doesn’t this character want to do what I want him or her to do?
Is there a character handy I can kill off to generate some sympathy or excitement?
If this scene is boring me, what will it do to the reader?
Should I start cutting?
Where was the last place the story felt right—should I go back and start from there, try something different?
What does this character want? Am I going to give it to him or her? If I do, will it be a curse or a blessing?
It usually takes three chapters or so, about fifty pages, to get to know your characters well enough to be certain of them. When the book is about a third complete, read it again to make sure that your characters are consistent, and make notes for any necessary rewrites, before finishing the draft.
A story arc for a book begins the moment that a character is forced to make a great change in his or her life. The story builds until the results of that change are final, and the conflict the change wrought in the character is resolved. So make sure that you start out very close to the moment of change. You can fill in necessary background in the course of the story.
Don't forget that you're not ‘Writing a Book.’ You're telling a story.
Keep ‘point of view’ in mind as you write. Make a decision as to how best to tell your story—whether it’s first-person, third-person limited, third person, third-person omniscient, or whatever. Find the best way to tell your story, and stick to it. Changing character viewpoint in mid-scene is an easy way to lose readers.
Thanks for reading!
Jean Rabe, author and editor