This is the second post in a blog series: Five Building Blocks of a Writing Style.
The first building block was VOICE. The second building block is CHARACTERS.
Yes, I really do believe that characters are more important than plot (a sneak peek at next week’s topic). This opinion of mine often gets me in trouble with my editor, Ellie Ann. Like the time she asked me what the plot of my book was. I told her, and she said, “No, that’s your character arc.” Oops.
Obviously, you need to have a plot in addition to a character arc. But if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t appreciate the beauty of a well-conceived plot.
I wrote the first draft of Eyes of Lightning in 2007. I had a few people, including my teenaged nieces, read the second draft in 2008. My plot back then was awful, and I still had a lot to learn about the writing craft. Fast forward three years—my nieces were still talking about the EOL characters as if they were real people. When characters stay in your head and heart for years, you know they’re keepers. So I rewrote EOL to give it a good plot, but I kept the characters the same.
How do you create unforgettable characters? Here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Character charts. Not everyone fills out character charts, but I love them. Here’s my favorite chart. It’s too lengthy for minor characters, but perfect for main characters. If you don’t know all the answers right away, that’s perfectly fine. Some of the answers you’ll learn as you write the story, some answers might change when you discover something new, and some just aren’t relevant. But time spent delving into your characters is never wasted time.
2. Inside-out analysis. Let’s pretend your character’s name is Sally. Try writing a page from Sally’s point of view, as if she’s describing her life to a stranger. After that, think about the people in Sally’s life—her parents, siblings, love interest, enemy, boss, random person on the street, etc. How would each of those people describe Sally in one word? Or in several words? Now you’re really starting to know Sally inside and out.
3. Dig deep. It’s fun to give your characters quirks, but if they’re too quirky, they won’t seem real. Give them at least one deep quality we can relate to. Don’t forget to ask the deep questions about their biggest goals, darkest fears, and strongest motivations.
4. Create a character arc. Your protagonist has goals, a purpose in life. Dangle those dreams in front of her like a carrot so she can get a taste of what that life would be like. Then one-by-one, things begin to go wrong—usually through the character’s own mistakes. At the climax of the character arc, she faces her darkest moment. She has to reach an epiphany and make a choice. At the end of the story, we see how the character has changed and grown.
The better you know your characters, the easier it will be to predict their actions—and thus a whole plot begins to emerge.
Let’s do a quick analysis of a book most of you know and love: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On page one, we find out what the Dursleys’ greatest fear is—that someone will discover their secret. J.K. Rowling explores all her characters, not just the main ones.
By page twelve we know that Harry’s parents are dead but he himself could not be killed by Voldemort. This accomplishes two things: 1) We now have sympathy for this baby boy who has lost his parents; 2) We know there is something special about Harry because he lived when all odds were against him.
We gain more sympathy for Harry as the book goes on. He lives under the stairs, tolerates the Dursleys, and owns next to nothing. And we soon learn more ways that Harry is special—his lightning bolt scar that everyone recognizes, his unique choice of wand, the Sorting Hat fiasco, his aptitude with a broom, etc.
Harry is humble, the exact opposite of Draco. He’s smart, but not a genius like Hermione. He’s interesting, but not as funny as Ron. He’s not ugly, but also not so gorgeous that we’re jealous of him. Rowling created a well-rounded, realistic character that we sympathize with, admire, and root for.
Now—get out from under Rowling’s impressive shadow and create your own characters!
Check back next week for building block #3: Plot!