A lot has been written about character development in fiction, from character stats to plumbing the character’s psychological depths. Donald Maass, in Writing 21st Century Fiction, says it best: “The characters which resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times; they reflect ourselves.”
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at some ways in which today’s readers tend to identify with (or resonate with) fictional characters.
Today’s readers may want more action and less description than novels of the past, but they still crave a character who feels as if he or she struggles with the same kinds of inner turmoil. The longing to be loved, to belong and to be understood are as real and consuming as at any place in history. No matter what your character struggles with on the outside–from pursuit of romance to pursuit of a prize, try to balance this goal with matching inner struggles. The human need for belonging and for the perception of being loved or needed will likely never wane. Balance is the key here. If your character spends most of the story battling dragons but only here and there mentions those inner demons, the story may feel shallow. If the character broods and thinks about those love and acceptance issues and does very little else, most readers (except in the hands of a very skilled writer) will feel trapped and will tire of the endless “navel gazing.” Aim for a balance of inner and outer problems.
A Pretty Price
It’s not enough, as Maass so eloquently says, to simply mirror our society. Readers will search for truth, and in a novel, this truth comes through as a price the character is paying or willing to pay. In order to accomplish this, the writer must be prepared to pay dearly for exposing this truth. Readers will know if the author has hedged on honesty or is skirting the deepest reality. The character who is willing to pay a high price is often willing to step forward when most of us jump ship and stay safely on shore. I think it’s difficult to write an authentic character if the writer has never experienced the sting of these costs in a personal way. The writer may not have lost a child, but in fiction must be able to approximate the experience by tapping into her own loss experiences. There is a high cost for this kind of honesty, and good writers don’t shrink from this responsibility.
Depth of Emotion
In life we protect ourselves, keeping our deepest emotions safely hidden from view. In order to write that “real” character, I maintain you must dig deep for the very things you’ve worked so hard to keep from view. Your depth of emotion must necessarily precede your character’s emotional range. This doesn’t mean you write in a florid, melodramatic way. Emotions are best illustrated using the LESS IS MORE axiom. It may take many revisions to find the place where our fiction not only reflects our times, it reflects ourselves. Honesty is your key to this goal, even as you continue to make stuff up about your character.