Many, if not all, writers begin their fiction with a character. In a writer’s mind, this character is a living, breathing person—seems so easy. But is she unforgettable? Bringing that character to life on the page takes extra effort.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are three tips to help you write an unforgettable character:
In my classes, I often ask students to call out values their characters possess. Honesty, loyalty and courage are often mentioned. Many will add traits such as wisdom, compassion, determination or leadership. Some will shout out that a character needs to also be vulnerable—which some interpret as flawed. When you build a Protagonist, author Donald Maass argues that writers who make their character too “real” (as in too ordinary), risk missing the chance to build a larger-than-life character who is unforgettable. Maass sees a memorable character as one with strengths rather than weaknesses; a person who doesn’t just suffer, she strives; this character doesn’t practice patience—he acts. This character doesn’t just survive—she endures. When you create your character, don’t try to make him too ordinary. Instead, allow the protagonist to possess values that make her unforgettable.
We often create characters who face inner or outer problems, which is good. The outer problems create the action and the inner problems provide emotion and motivation. Sometimes, though, these two elements are out of balance. A quiet novel where too much focus is on the inner problems will often feel slow. A fast-paced character with few inner problems can feel shallow. Strive for a balance. Let what happens in the story match the intensity and time given to the character’s inner turmoil. Too much navel gazing is rarely successful. And a story with little emotion misses the opportunity to move readers in profound ways. One way to check balance is to see how much time the main character is on stage alone—thinking, remembering, mulling things over. If there are too many scenes in which our character is in her head, readers will likely feel trapped and demand action. Another way to check for balance is to practice your one sentence log line or theme sentence. If there isn’t much in it in the way of motivation, passion, urgency, you may need to work on communicating your character’s inner life.
Finally, writers need readers to care about their character and story. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says, “In a novel, struggle is far more compelling than satisfaction.” He calls conflict one of the secret ingredients of great characters, and challenges writers to build both outer and inner conflict into stories. To go beyond the cookie-cutter character, give that character self-regard, that is, make her emotions matter to her. This character embraces life, ponders life, does not dismiss events but wonders what they mean. This larger-than-life character knows he has a problem and tries to change, but he doesn’t only see the light at the end. He already has built-in sympathetic qualities such as trying to be good, constantly working to overcome shortcomings. When redemption does come in the end, readers cheer because he has overcome through hard work. Striving to be better is one way a character can impose urgency into a story. The character never gives up. At the end, a great character asks, “How have I changed?” Insert the same urgency into your own work to create better characters.