Character Development – Make Me Care

March 6, 2015

Generally when I give a crit regarding the need to fully develop the character, it’s because the author failed to let me into the character’s head enough. If I don’t care about a character, then I won’t give a rip about what they’re experiencing. A lot of writers over-think this and wonder what they’re doing wrong.

Don’t sweat this – it’s a lot easier to fix this than you think.

Think about what it’s like to meet someone new. You don’t know anything about them, so when they say they’re going skiing for the weekend, you’re probably making a mental note to go buy dental floss. Who cares? However, when a friend tells me the same thing, I instantly know that she’s freaking out about it because the last time she went, she broke her leg. Since I know her very well, she’s a fully developed character to me. I know what makes her happy/scared/excited/worried/etc because I know what’s inside her head.And more importantly, I have a good idea how she’ll react.

In this same fashion, it’s the author’s job to introduce the reader to his character(s) and expose enough about that character so we care what happens to her. But this means that you need to know your character very well – something I blogged about in How Well Do You Know Your Character?

In getting to know your character, you may think about The Dangling Carrot, which will help you flesh out your character on a deeper level.

The mechanics of how this is done can be through dialog, inner dialog, and deftly used exposition…

Speaking of dialog, it’s a cool way to show your character rather than tell your character. What I mean is this:

Telling your character:

Jane was the quirky sort who looked at the world through a skewed lens. She was on a few degrees off plumb.

On the face of it, the sentence is fine, but what if her dialog never reveals these characteristics? Then I have no choice but to take your word for it; and I won’t. Ah, the beauty and importance of excellent, smart dialog!

Here’s an example of showing your character through dialog:

“What’s the fun of attending this stuffy tea if we can’t have a little fun? I say we spike the teapot with cheap gin and watch those university wives get down with the funk. With a little bit of luck, they’ll hike up their skirts and splash about the marble fountain. It’d be the most fun they’ve had since having their braces removed.”

The dialog makes the first example sentence (tell) unnecessary. The reader already has it figured out that the character is a few degrees off plumb…and someone I instantly care about. In just that one paragraph, I want to know what else this crazy character is going to do or say.

In truth, it actually takes very little to make a reader care about your characters, but you have to know what you’re doing, and you have to do it consciously.

I always appreciate authors who show rather than tell because this adds an extra layer to character development. You’re getting the idea across about your character by letting her speak, rather than giving your readers a menu. As I always say, you can tell me something ’til the cows come home, but until you show me, well…I’d rather go cow tipping.

Make ’em care.




How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

September 23, 2013


Character Development was the topic of a discussion I was having with a group of writers. I went through a general list of things I run up against when reading manuscripts – things that make my teeth itch. Things like:

  • React vs. Proact: Main character spends more time reacting to situations than proacting – being in control. This makes your main character disappear into the wallpaper.
  • Cliche: The cop who drinks and smokes too much, his apartment is always messy, and he’s divorced. Really? Why are there no healthy, happy, clean cops in these stories? Cliche characters is sloppy writing.
  • Weak supporting cast: Sometimes authors employ a weak supporting cast in order to elevate their main character. The result is a flat story. You need a strong supporting cast in order to have something solid for your main character to play off of.
  • Cause and Effect: If your intent is that your main character is viewed in a certain way, then you need to writer her that way. If she’s well respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who finger-curls her hair and says, “yanno” a lot. The dim bulb can’t be the Ivy League magna cum laude. If they are, then it has to be fully explained. Readers won’t go from Point A, to Point B and C unless you logically and artfully take them there.
  • Why Him/Her?: Your main character is your main character for a reason, which means they have some kind of trait(s) that are worthy of exploration, and is solely unique to this character. After all, anyone can save the world from that giant Twinkie, so why is Roger Ramjet the lucky one to do the honors? What makes him the only character to solve this problem?
  • Lack of a Personality: If you’ve chosen Roger Ramjet, then you need to give him a personality worthy of being up to this particular sequence of events. He’s gotta be real, with a personality we can touch. What kinds of quirks do they have? What are they afraid of?
  • Evolution: Characters who don’t evolve aren’t real. You know that saying about how no one gets out of this life alive…well, we don’t get out of this life unchanged, either. Characters who don’t change aren’t characters we can care about. If Margie is as dumb as box of rocks at the beginning and remains so at the end, then lots of readers will toss Margie against a wall and quit reading.

So all these things we talked about boiled down to one thing: How well do you know your characters? Many insisted they knew their characters very well, but then I asked how they felt their characters had evolved, I saw some thoughtful expressions. I asked why they chose THIS particular character to star in their stories, and saw some thoughtful expressions.

One author mentioned how she had killed off one of her characters and that he sat on the couch and told her all the reasons he should remain in the book. Ok, we realize that writers are the only people who can read that and not insist that little men in white coats carry them away, away, away….

After that experience, the author began to journal each character in her books, in each character’s POV.

I heard angels sing and watched a shaft sunlight blast through the clouds. What a brilliant idea. I know it’s not a new one, but it had been years since I’d heard it, and I thought this would be a good reminder to all you wonderful people.

And yeah, this goes for you nonfiction writers as well.

I see too many stories where I don’t feel the writer knows their characters well enough, and the result is lifeless, flat things that I don’t care about. A journal in your characters’ POV forces them to unveil themselves to you. You may realize things about them that you’d never thought of. This may be information you don’t plan on using…but you never know.

For example, I write bios for all my characters, and I ended up using some of the goofier traits here and there to add color and dimension to my characters. I do that to make sure those characters are as real as my fleshy friends.

And let’s face it, if you don’t have wonderful, rich characters, your book will probably fall apart. If the characters are fabulous, then I’ll follow them anywhere – even into the dentist’s office. But you can only attain that fabulosity if you know them really, really well.

Character Clichés – “Make Like a Tree and Get Outta Here”

September 4, 2013

I flew out to So Cal last week from the ‘Burg to see my adorable niece get married. As I got my seatbelt buckled, I noticed about three separate families with tiny babies, and another group of 45 kids get on the plane. Insert inward groan here. I’ve been on flights where I wished for a speedy death from a screeching baby, so the sight of all these mini-humans had my inner dialog sounding something like this: “1…2…20…25…gah! Look at all those walking hormones! On MY plane! Please, Benevolent Cosmic Muffin, just kill me now. Don’t make me wrestle the flight attendant for a rusty butter knife – even though I think I could totally take her…”

I had an overwhelming desire to dig my fingernails into my cerebral hard drive. Face it, we don’t real high expectations from a group of ‘tweeners, right? Well, the joke was on me. They were adorable…even the babies. I practically danced off the plane when it landed 5.5 hours later.

What I did is give in to a cliche. I made assumptions based on previous experiences, and gave no consideration that there could be any other outcome. We normally see ‘tweens as alien creatures whose breathtaking toxicity tarnish everything they come into contact with. We expect it.

As writers, we can sometimes fall prey to cliches, and it makes for boring, lifeless writing. The divorced, chain-smoking, messy detective; the airhead cheerleader; the dumb jock; the prudish/strict/scary teacher; the romance story clumsy female protag; the angry, resentful teen, the blushing bride…the list goes on forever.

Readers don’t want the expected because, well, they’ve seen it before. Lots of times. Readers are smart, and they want the unexpected. They want to be pleasantly surprised. They want twists. Nothing gooses my gander more than to finish a book saying, “Wow, awesome characters –  a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill.”

Take a look at your characters. Are they people you’ve read before, or do they have dimension? The cop/detective doesn’t have to be a divorced, chain smoking slob. He could be the fastidious type who’s borderline obsessive compulsive. Think of what that trait did for Monk. The idea is to think outside the box when it comes to your characters. They are the most important element of your story, so you have to make them leap off the page.

Take time with your characters, avoid the cliches. It’s the first thing that will cause an agent or editor to deep six a project. Now go out and be brilliant.

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