You’ve invented a wonderful protagonist, a person who is real to you in every way. But then, you try to put that reality onto the page, and suddenly, readers can’t see the person you imagined. How do you write a believable, sympathetic character that readers will follow?
Writing Tip for Today: If your characters (especially your protagonist, or Main Character) feels flat, undifferentiated or not compelling enough, try these techniques:
A Write Good Character
The best main characters are usually those who seem “just like us,” (i.e., everyman) and also larger-than-life in some way. We want to relate to our character, but we also want the character to be daring in ways we are not. You might not skip work on Monday to fly to Hawaii for a whirlwind romantic encounter, but your protagonist might. And she’ll have to face the consequences–thankfully you won’t. In life, we spend a lot of time trying to keep stress and tension OUT of our worlds, but fictional characters must wade right into conflict and tension. Give your character some traits such as loyalty, generosity or forgiveness and let her act these out on the page. Don’t make the Main Character perfect–you can give him a flaw or two–but my advice to new novelists is to stay away from Main Characters who are sociopathic, those who don’t know what they want or those who are content to wander aimlessly through a story. In fiction these attributes are hard to identify with for most readers. Better to give your Main Character a heart, a goal and a path to get there.
Feet to the Flames
The best characters in fiction are challenged at every turn. You, as their creator, must resist the urge to “help out” your protagonist when the going gets tough. In fiction MC’s feet should be held to the flames, whether it means more arguing (I find that female writers often have difficulty building tension–we’re socially taught to “play nice”), more danger or more risks. The term deus ex machina means essentially that instead of the MC solving the problem(s), outside forces (the gods, the cavalry) swoop in a the last moment to save the day. If your protag is a child, it can be tempting to allow grown-ups to save the day. Yet your protagonist (no matter what age) should solve the major problem(s) on his own. This gives readers satisfaction they might not experience otherwise. By not allowing your Main Character to skirt the obstacles or shy away from conflict, you’ll be more likely to write a character that is a hero.
Go for the Gut
Well-drawn characters act and react as they fight for the story goal. Yet for readers, it’s all about feelings. After all, readers are living vicariously through a story. For this reason, emotions become paramount to a satisfying read. In order to understand character emotions, understanding motivation is crucial. Why does your character do one thing and not another? And how does she feel about it? Writers are often advised to know everything about a character, yes, including back story. The trick is to write about the back story and motivation for your own edification and then resist the urge to dump all that info on readers. Think long and hard about why your character feels as he does, but only allow actual back story to trickle into the story in the smallest possible amounts. For me, this means only three sentences of back story at any one time (See the Rule of Three). You’ll keep your character and your readers in real-time, and gain the biggest bang for your back story buck.