Yesterday I read a great post by Seattle novelist Jennie Shortridge, talking about characters. Making them “leap off the page,” even. Writers struggle to avoid telling, filling the opening with back story or other devices. Yet it is imperative to build a likable, sympathetic character.
Writing Tip for Today: How can writers portray memorable and sympathetic characters without resorting to back story or too much telling?
- Get Them Moving! Resist opening a story with the character sitting and thinking, or sitting and staring, etc. How many stories have you read where the character is first shown staring out a window, looking out of a vehicle or sitting alone thinking about something? Let your portrait of the character come out through that character’s actions.
- Pack Your Actions. Your character does things we all do–but in a unique way. Focus on conveying emotion through action. For instance, in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, the opening is a flash back, but a very clever one. In it, the narrator recalls how his father rescued him from death after he was born not breathing. We are drawn into the action, but we also learn a lot about both the narrator and the dad.
- Remember the 3 parts of Sequel. You know what a scene is, and if you’re smart you get one going quickly. Then you employ the 3 parts of sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. In the reaction part you can show your character’s physical reactions–gritting teeth, a gasp, a quiet dread. Next, showcase what your character is afraid of in the dilemma (should I do this or that?). Last, paint your character’s courage and resolve with the decision (even a wrong one) to act. Then it’s more scene.