Writing Truer Characters

Whether you’re writing fiction or memoir, your characters must do the heavy lifting for your readers.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways to make your characters “truer?”

Light Up the World

You invent characters or in the case of memoir, you reimagine them. Inside your head these characters are fully formed. The hard part is translating them for your readers. If your characters seem shallow, wooden or stereotyped, you can inject life into them by knowing everything about them. Some writers make extensive charts with all the specifics—that’s fine. But understanding your character’s goal and motivation (what drives the character to pursue this goal) is a better predictor of a “true” character.

One technique I’ve talked about is to write a letter from your protagonist (and any other characters) to answer these questions. Let your character speak freely and you may be surprised at what comes out. The character you thought you controlled will often wrest control away from you and bring depth and meaning to the story.

Another way to “true” characters is to model them on real people. Be careful, though. The safest way to bring real life into a character is to draw from more than one person, combining traits and disguising appearances. Unless your antagonist is dead in real life, you want to avoid plunking a real-life character into your story without altering recognizable features. Lawsuits have occurred!

Get Characters Moving

Let’s say your character is fully formed. How do you convince readers? One way to pump life into your characters is to get them moving. A character who sits around a table talking in scene after scene becomes static. These “sit and gab” scenes omit the action readers crave. Try to think of scene ideas where your characters can move about. Your scene will ring truer to your readers if the characters don’t stay in one setting too long.

And what about monologues or thought scenes? Readers can feel trapped in a character’s head if too much time is spent alone on stage. If you must rely heavily on back story or memory to engage readers, consider moving your timeline. Is a character in the past more interesting? Be sure you’re telling the right story at the right time and place.

A word about talking heads: Resist the urge to allow dialogue to overtake the action. Readers do love white space around dialogue as opposed to huge chunks of narrative. Yet all talk and no action not only confuses readers, it can also bore them. Be sure to integrate action and dialogue and keep narration in check. The more you have to tell, the less the readers will be shown.

The more you have to tell, the less readers will be shown.

Go for the Emotions

As always, I believe a true character elicits emotion from readers by displaying honest emotion. Emotion in writing is far more than saying a character is happy, sad or angry. Show the emotions through thought, dialogue and gesture or body language, but don’t ham it up. Let emotion build in a logical way by showing readers the why (motivation) your character feels and acts a certain way.

In showing character emotions, beware of simply clenching fists, squinting eyes or audible gasps. I think giving readers access to the running thought in a character’s POV is a great way to convey emotion. That way, you’re not forcing readers to see clenched fists but letting them experience that clenched feeling and the reason behind it.

A true character is a three-dimensional character. Your task as a writer is to show your readers all dimensions of your character while still juggling the story plot. Don’t forget about using Concrete Sensory Detail to make your character more particular, more specific. A character with strong goals and motives combined with specific details and sufficient action will likely be a character readers won’t forget.

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.

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