Lots of manuscripts implode because the characters are as flat as my homemade cake. Authors are smart to make a general list of their characters’ traits. For instance, you don’t want the health nut to grab a Twinkie and bag ‘o chips. And yet I see this happen in my reading. If I see a clunk like that, I lose faith that they’ve thought through their characters’ quirks and personalities. These people only exist in your imagination, and it’s your job to make them appear real on paper.
Think about your best friend and pretend you’re going to describe him/her to someone else. You don’t concentrate on their build or hair color. You talk about the fact that she has been known to snort a gin and tonic through her nose when she laughs real hard. You mention that when she’s really tired, one eye veers off to the left. You talk about how she is an incurable gossip if you bribe her with chocolate. These are the things that give color and dimension. And dimension is what makes us care about your characters. Too many times I reject manuscripts because there isn’t anything that makes me care about them because I don’t know enough about them.
Writing a list helps with the small stuff that enhances the reality of a character. Is your character the type to tap her teeth when she’s pondering a tough problem? Does she laugh nervously when embarrassed? Is he a recovering alcoholic? Does she have a lint fetish? These little niggly things seem inconsequential, but they add flavor to a scene and help us see that character more clearly.
And while I’m talking about character development, don’t be afraid to give your character some flaws. When I was a kid, I used to drive my dad nuts by bleating, “No one’s perfect!” when he was in the middle of pointing out something that made me far south of perfect. So don’t make your characters the pinnacle of perfection either. It’s boring.
No one is that good, or that loving, or that perfect all the time. Everyone falls off some kind of wagon, so make sure your character does as well. Do they have a temper? Do they have a particular bias that drives everyone crazy? Are they afraid of commitment? Are they afraid to make left turns while driving? Do they have a phobia? I’m not talking about small flaws, like not flossing before going to bed, but big issues that get in the way of their life.
These flaws aren’t part of the plot, but merely the background color. It’s like in A Fish Called Wanda, where Michael Palin’s character, Ken, has a terrible stutter. After he finally buries his nemesis, Otto, played by Kevin Kline, under wet concrete, he loses his stutter. Great stuff. It wasn’t the plot, but it rounded out K-k-k-en’s character beautifully and made for some great humor. A classic in the Price household.
This is the stuff that makes me care and what keeps me turning the pages. Too many people don’t take this into consideration. Have them drink gin, eat crap food and stutter. Make ‘em real.