Writing Characters, Inside and Out

We so funny

Writing fictional characters that are also unforgettable
takes a delicate combination of inner and outer knowledge, motivation, actions
and decisions.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at some simple ways
to deepen your fictional characters:

Where the Stakes Are

Before your story can take off for readers, the lead character must need/want/be desperate for something. Is it love? To be the first woman to blast off for Mars? How about to finger a killer? While each of these goals is a common theme in fiction, consider how the main story goal in your story will be played out on stage.

Even goals that are about emotions (true love, belonging, faith) must be acted out in ways that readers can understand. New writers often fail to allow these emotional or inner goals to come out in observable ways. It’s dangerous to rely on dialogue, inner thoughts and/or flashbacks for the bulk of the content which shows the character pursuing these goals.

Where possible, imagine some creative ways to act out or illustrate the character’s inner goals and challenges. By bringing the inner character out on stage, readers will be more likely to remain engaged as they follow the story.

For instance, let’s say a minister father grieving the loss of his son feels angry at God. Simply having Dad sit around and stew or even shake a fist a heaven and yell is still passive. What if Pastor pulls all the religious books from his library shelves and throws them into a heap, intending to burn them? He strikes the match but at the last second can’t go through with it. This is an example of deep emotion acted out—which can be stronger than just recording thoughts and dialogue.

What’s Eating Your Hero?

Delve into your character’s history (back story) for clues to her motivation. Why this goal? Why now? If you know the reasons behind a character’s goals, it’s more likely that you can write scenes that show a natural (believable) progression toward the action.

For instance, your character is an early twentieth-century woman thrown into a loveless marriage out in the Canadian wilderness. She’s from a good, proper and well-off family in the US and is angry about having to chop wood out on the prairie. If a handsome stranger enters her life, readers must see her struggle with her decisions before she acts on her emotions to start an affair with the stranger. If not, she’ll simply appear without morals to readers—and will likely lose sympathy.

The progression in scenes of how people change their minds (and the struggle to be good) is usually shown through sequel. The order of a sequel is: the character reacts to an action in the scene; character works through a dilemma (What should I do about it?) and finally makes a decision and acts, which propels readers back into scene. Writers who rush through important sequels or omit them risk losing readers who cannot believe anyone could change in that manner. Take your time and show readers what’s eating your character.

Creating Reader Resonance

Reader resonance is that feeling of “Wow, that’s exactly how I’d feel/think or do” where readers identify with the character’s inner and outer goals. One of the best ways to create resonance is by balancing the inner and the outer conflicts of the story.  If too much emphasis is placed on the action, a story begins to feel shallow. Too much sittin’ and thinkin’ or back story, and readers feel trapped in the character’s head, often bored and liable to stop reading.

Think about what real people are like. We observe their actions and may see inner struggles through dialogue. We also judge emotions by body language and actions.

For instance, a woman’s daughter was abducted when she was ten years old but found alive days later. Now, Mom can’t stand for daughter to leave her side even for a minute—and it’s tearing the relationship apart. Mom obsesses about ways to stay in sight of her precious girl. By showing readers all the outlandish ways this mother schemes to keep her daughter nearby, we get a clear picture of Mom’s inner problems too.

In fiction, we are lucky to be able to write out thoughts
and feelings, and all writers should maximize these for the story benefit. But
true reader resonance happens when readers can appreciate the character’s
desperate goal and achieve inner/outer motivation balance and create a believable
timeframe to resolve dilemmas.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing Characters, Inside and Out

  1. Kathy,
    You are most welcome. The cats love to “meme” it up. Maybe “EEW, Mom, not that gaggy kibble again!”?

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