The key to a compelling character relies on a balance between the character’s outer life (what happens to her) and inner life (what happens in her).
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at some easy ways to create a winning inner life for your character:
Light the Fire
One of the most common mistakes I read in people’s work is to skimp on showing the character’s passion for the goal. The argument that in real life we often start out ambiguous or undecided on a goal doesn’t stand up too well in fiction. Why? Readers quickly lose patience with a character who seems to be wandering through life with no particular place to go. I see this character most often in middle-aged or mid-career writers who are facing crises in their own lives, questioning all they thought they wanted and needed. Yet in fiction, readers are only willing to put up with indecision for very brief periods. Instead, writers can add urgency and readability to their work by lighting a fire beneath this character. Where in real life if one doesn’t obtain a goal, we may shrug and go on to the next thing, in fiction, the character should be more dedicated, passionate and determined for the goal. One way to see if your character is expressing a desperate need for a goal is to answer the question, “So What?” If my character doesn’t attain the goal, so what? If the answer is less than remarkable, rethink the goal by upping the stakes. You can review posts about high stakes in novels here.
Heat Up the Issues
Another way to fire up your character’s inner life is to heat up his issues, that is, problems. A character who witnessed an injustice, a death, a calamity or other kinds of trauma will be a different character than one for whom life is a breeze. In fact, choose characteristics that complement your character: is he honest, generous, loyal? How about forgiving? List your character’s good traits as well as his flaws. Another way to build your character’s inner world is to let your character write you a letter. In it, allow your character to tell you what she really really wants and needs and what past trauma creates this urgency. Be careful about inserting a lot of this material into the work itself—it’s going to be back story. You’ll want to manage your reader by letting out pertinent emotional states and events like the FBI—on a “need to know” basis. If you place too much back story in any one scene, you risk confusing or losing your reader. See this post on back story for more on the topic.
Feet to the Flames
Your character’s inner life drives the story forward, with what’s known as motivation. Who your character is and what he wants provides the engine that pulls the train of scenes. In real life we sometimes take time off from worry or problems, but in fiction this isn’t generally a good idea. Some writers tell me that they want to “give readers the chance to catch their breath” in letting the tension ease, but no tension equals no reason to see what happens next. Think of your character’s motivation as tension for the events of the story. If your character takes a break and goes on vacation, keep her feet to the flames. Don’t ever let the tension ease until a resolution at the end. For if your character is comfortable, the story is over. Each scene must build on the tension of the last one, in an ever-steepening hike to the climax. If you’ve shown readers your character’s inner workings so that they make sense, they’ll keep reading to see how the character handles those inner issues as much as to learn the story outcome. Do this, and your character’s inner life and strife will create an unforgettable character.