Ciao, SEers. As we bring February to a close, we reach part three of this series: characters. SE has quite a few posts on the topic. (Joan has a whole series on specific character types, Craig has a series on archetypes, Mae shows us how to use personality tests to develop characters, John discusses insensitivity, and I haven’t scratched the surface. Consider typing “character” into our search bar for a variety of character posts.) Today, I’ll take a slightly different approach and discuss what your characters should do.
Even if you write plot-driven fiction, this point is an absolute truth. Your story is about how your POV character sees a specific aspect of the world. That means there’s automatically an element of bias in your story. Your instinct might be to try to eliminate that bias and tell your story as impartially as possible. RESIST THAT URGE. What makes your story compelling is that character’s view.
Take, for example, The Wizard of Oz. We see things from Dorothy’s perspective. Her home life is boring, and no one understands or seems to care about her problems. Only a life-threatening experience convinces her to stay in Kansas, not run away, and appreciate what she has. I promise you, if the story was told from the Wicked Witch of the West’s perspective, it would be a far different tale. Embrace your character’s perspective. Lean into it. Always tell the story through that filter. To do so, you need to get into that character’s head. Learn who they are, what they want, what they need (which is different), and what they’d be willing to do to get these things.
Our main characters can’t be stereotypes. They need to be unique individuals, just like real people. You may have just brought them to life, but they come with a lifetime of history and lug their baggage to prove it. That baggage is proof they’re not stereotypes. They made mistakes before, and they’ll do so again. (Hopefully not the same ones.) This is your character arc. Their errors in judgement, how they react to them, and how they’ve changed from lessons learned is the whole point.
Make your main character and your villain complex people. They, more than any other characters, must be unique and memorable. That doesn’t mean ignore the development of secondary characters. They impart wisdom, provide comedic relief, and occasionally go on to star in their own stories. They must be “real” people, too. Make all of your characters live in the gray. No hero is perfectly pure, and no villain is entirely evil. Everyone’s on the gray spectrum. Show the challenges that must be overcome to lean toward the light (or the ones that are ignored that take a character into the darkness). Your hero can and should occasionally stumble morally. And your villain should have moments of charity.
Take the time to make your characters not only imperfect, but also memorable. And whatever you choose to make your characters memorable and distinct, reveal that early. The earlier, the better. That will go a long way in bringing them to life as individuals.
In the end, remember that telling the story is done through the lens of your characters. But what sells your story is creating a relationship between the reader and the characters.
- Show the world through your characters’ eyes.
- Avoid stereotypes.
- Remember their backstories.
- Let their mistakes define their characters and inform their arcs.
- Make sure all of them are complex and fully developed.
- Show them all in the gray.
- Make them memorable.
- Introduce their individuality early.
- Strive to create a strong reader-character relationship.
Next time, we’ll discuss dialogue in more detail. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you develop your characters. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!
Links to the Whole Series:
January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series
Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.