It’s nearly Fall! The pumpkins are busy plumping, cats are knocking stuff over and our fictional characters could use a little more sparkle—NaNoWriMo is almost here.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ideas for pumping some
3-D spice into your fictional characters:
The Unique Character
Most writers will admit, if they’re honest, that their
characters are, at least in part, a reflection of themselves. There is nothing
wrong with basing characters upon your own experience—after all, you know yourself
better than anyone. You can give them unique names or give them different
appearances, but problems may arise when a cast of characters starts acting too
much like you. They will likely feel flat to readers.
In addition to varying the way your Main Character and the Supporting Cast look and sound in the story, be sure to further differentiate them by allowing them to respond and react in individual ways. It’s not what your characters say, think or feel, it’s HOW they say it, think it or feel it. A leader doesn’t think about the world the same way that a timid or shy follower might. Many writers count themselves as shy or introverts, but readers crave characters who aren’t afraid to act, sometimes boldly.
If in real life you are cautious and risk-averse, try to paint some characters who would make very different decisions if presented with the same life events. For instance, if cautious-you won the lottery, you might promptly make safe and conservative investments. A devil-may-care character might quit her job and go on a spending spree. Try writing a version of an event in your story from the POV of three different characters (major or minor). How alike or different are they? For more ideas on character development, go HERE.
The Conflicted Character
Another way to animate a flat character is to check for
conflict. Even in quieter, character-driven stories, allowing your protagonist
shrink from or avoid conflict is a sure way to let all the air out. Our society
teaches us to play nice. For women especially, rising conflict and tension can
feel uncomfortable. If we carry these unwritten rules to our fiction, the
peace-loving character can feel indecisive, uninteresting and flat.
A good way to test your character for conflict is to drop
her into a high-risk situation and then force the character to react. If you
find that your character backs down, walks away from conflict or wins easily
every time, you may want to tighten the screws. The more your character thinks
instead of speaks, speaks instead of acts or in some way doesn’t face conflict
or danger head-on, the more likely it is that your character feels flat to
What many writers don’t see is that your character can and probably should be scared to death, certain she’ll die or feel generally inadequate. Showing those feelings adds value to the character, but only if she closes her eyes, grits her teeth and acts in spite of those feelings. Treat your character as if she is the last person on earth willing to jump off that cliff to save the world. Nate Bransford’s post has some great ideas for increasing conflict and unflattening characters.
The Challenged Character
Some characters feel flat only because they are not
challenged sufficiently. If your character starts out with a
passionately-hoped-for goal yet still doesn’t move readers, it might be that
her goal doesn’t matter enough. High-stakes goals (meaning the character, her
community, the world will be devastated if the goal isn’t won) help fuel
conflict and tension and compel readers to follow the character and the story.
You can test your work for high-stakes goals by imposing the “So What?” test. If your character doesn’t achieve the goal, so what? What happens? If your best answer is that the character will be sad, your stakes probably need to be raised.
I think the best stories contain concentric rings of repercussions either positive or negative. The innermost ring is on the individual level—if the guy doesn’t get the girl; if the killer isn’t caught; if the character can never forgive those who took away something priceless. The next ring might be a couple, a family, a circle of friends. How will those closest to the character be impacted? What will change, for better or for worse? Outer rings of influence might be school, workplace or community; city or town; all the way to the entire world or galaxy. By ensuring that each of these levels will change significantly should the high-stakes goal fail, the writer reinforces the idea that the goal matters on many levels.