We all have read that one book where a character in the story does something that goes against that character’s nature. Perhaps early in the story they are labeled as lactose intolerant, then three chapters later they are eating five-layer lasagna and drinking a glass of milk because it’s healthier than wine. When you contradict concrete elements of your character, you lose all credibility as a writer. Unless somewhere between chapters one and four your character finds a miracle-drug or finds that he has been misdiagnosed, you’re in trouble.
This week I want to give you pointers on how to develop believable characters. Your main character drives your story. Your minor characters steer the course of your main character. If anyone has a misstep or fails at their job, the story you are telling will not keep your reader interested. Every action of each character must be believable and have a firm foundation in reality.
I understand that rules are meant to be broken. If your story is mythic or futuristic and you have created a world where impossible things happen, then you have greater latitude with realism. But even science fiction needs to have some sense of grounding. All the what-if’s need to have your reader believing that your fantasy could actually happen.
Reject Flying by the Seat of Your Pants
There are two types of writers. Plotters and Pantsers. Pretty much self-explanatory. You know who you are. Me? I am a person, or at least I used to be, who plans everything. I used to plan every detail of my life. Sheesh, I used to carry around a day-planner. (This was before the day of the Blackberry. Back then we had to write things down to remember them.) My first attempt at writing a novel I had outlines, character dossiers, and storyboards. I knew the birthday, birthplace, and circumstances surrounding each character’s birth. Even for my minor characters. I was definitely a plotter.
Today, I find myself having a general plot written, but I let the story take me where it wants to go next. I feel you have a strong rooted character and a destination; then each step will find its way of happening.
J.K. Rowling is an avid plotter. Examples of her plot lines for Harry Potter are all over the internet. While on the other side of the aisle, Stephen King has been quoted saying, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God, they were writing masters’ theses.” Even Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, says, “The structure or design gets worked out in the course of writing.” That quote goes on to say that doing it the other way around would be like paining-by-numbers.
Whether you have your story plotted down to the name of your main character’s childhood pet name, or you make it up as you go along, do what works for you. At the same time, keep your characters authentic, realistic, and consistent. This comes with knowing your character inside and out; attitude, mannerisms, speaking style, language, and how they take their coffee are all important. Neglect nothing.
Do Your Research
There is a difference between telling a story and faking it. When you tell a story, you are more than likely pulling from experiences you have had or have heard. When you fake it, you are trying to convey to your reader something you know little to nothing about. In one of our previous lessons, I talked about the fire in my novel. I knew very little about how fires are extinguished. I could very well have just said that the fire truck showed up and put out the fire, but where is the adventure in that? To give my story more authenticity, I had to provide the fire with an aspect that required some knowledge of how flames work. This required a bit of research.
SK warns about doing too much research. He says that a writer’s job is to tell the story, not write research papers. Facts are one thing, but even a good thing can be a bad thing. You can do too much fact telling; then you turn your writing into a Tom Clancy novel. (Sorry Mr. Clancy. I couldn’t get through even one of your books. Too much detail for me.)
When you must research, you need just to know enough to convince your reader you know what you are talking about. If you are writing about a truck driver who hauls fluids, you must allow the reader to think you were a truck driver. Explain to the reader the feeling of having to make a quick stop and how the liquid in your tank pushes you forward. If you didn’t know about ‘surge,’ and you told your story about how a driver narrowly missed a rear-end accident, a truck driver who reads your novel will recognize the missing fact and will know you are faking your facts. Don’t turn a reader off through your laziness of learning about a subject crucial to a character’s behavior.
The dog panted. Her heart raced. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. It was a dark and stormy night. (Okay, I like that one. It’s the opening line of one of my favorite books I read as a child; A Wrinkle in Time) All are typical clichés that most inexperienced writers overuse because they feel they convey an action or elicit emotion. Let me lovingly tell you right now, Stop it.
Go-to phrases do nothing for your writing. You may get across your point, but the emotions or actions your character is going through may get lost in abuse of such expressions. Of course, dogs pant. But, be unique with your wording. Try instead: the dog ran to the front of the house, excited to see his master, his tongue wet the floor with a mixture of exhaustion and anticipation. Can you see it? You picture the dog panting, don’t you? Don’t bore your readers with overused clichés.
Don’t Wow Your Readers with Your Intelligence
A Thesaurus can be your best friend but going as far as using ‘obsequious’ when you mean ‘submissive’ or ‘mucilaginous’ when you mean ‘sticky’ can get you into trouble. Yes, there is a time and a place for obscure words but using a bigger word does not make your prose more intelligent. It could, in fact, confuse your reader or throw off the flow of your story.
One example that gets me every time. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufrene is trying to convince the warden to consider some evidence that could prove that he is innocent of the murder of his wife. The warden will not hear of it. In frustration, Andy says, “How can you be so obtuse?” The first time I heard that word I was taken back. I did not know what it meant. From the context, one can try to put it together, but after a little bit of research, I found that ‘obtuse’ really didn’t mean what I thought it meant. I thought it meant ‘mean’ or ‘cruel.’ However, it actually means ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant.’
I get the fact that Andy was an educated man, and so was the warden. The use of ‘obtuse’ could be in the character’s nature. Perhaps the word is readily used in the 40’s when the events of this book are supposed to take place. But when you give your reader a word they may not fully understand, they will have to pause and guess, or set the book aside and pick up a dictionary to find out the words meaning. The point is that when you write a character, make sure they are talking and behaving the way a person with amount their amount of education.
Be unique, but be who you are. Remember, only you can tell the story you have stored in your heart. There is no need to mislead your readers or to blow them away with an extensive vocabulary. Allow your characters to be real. A person cannot one night be angry at the world with an ominous outlook on life, then get up early the next morning whistling, “Walking on Sunshine” as they head into work.
Choose the demeanor of your character and stick with it. If that is the transition you desire for your character, then create the progression. Maybe that character is angry at the world because they were just fired from a job they had been at for years. The progress to get them to whistling in the morning would be something like toughing out job interviews and finally finding the right job that pays better than the first job with better hours and benefits.
Let your imagination take over, but be real. Real to your character. Real to yourself. Real to your readers. When your readers are riding the flow of your story, don’t let their boat be overturned by doubt and disbelief in your character. Let him, or her live their life, but give them a concrete, authentic standard that will keep your reader flipping the page.