Sunday, June 1, 2008

Characters We Care About

We don't need to love them, but we do need to feel like we know them. We need to understand what makes them tick, and we need to identify with them enough to care about what happens to them.

Think about the characters in the book you're reading right now. Do they have imperfections to add dimension and make them real? Can you imagine what they're doing when you close the cover of the book and clean the kitchen?

Are there lines you don't want to cross that might take a character from fabulously flawed to pompously pathetic?

We know we want our protagonists to be strong, but strength without vulnerability is tyrannical. And a character without weakness is hard to cheer for. After all, they can't lose.

And in fiction, they have to be able to lose.

Here are a couple of ideas on ways to flesh out a two-dimensional character into something a bit more memorable (I'm sure there are more and I'd love to hear them):

· Vulnerability Know the physical or emotional soft spot that is intimately tied to your character. You don't need to go into it ad nauseam with backstory, but showing vulnerable sides will help make your character more human. Think about fear, regret, guilt, sadness, failures, etc.

· Desire Your character has to have something at stake. The more they want something, the more we like them. Desperate desire is even more compelling than whether or not they ever achieve what they're after. A specific, tangible, understandable goal keeps a reader engaged . . . especially when they're thwarted time after time.

· First Person Take your main characters and write a first person character study. Phillip McGraw (Dr. Phil) wrote a book called Self Matters, and although I admit to never finishing this bestseller, it does provide some interesting character development ideas. What are the ten most defining moments of your character's life? What have (up until now) been the seven most critical choices they've made to get them where they are? Who are the five most important people in their life and how have they been shaped by those five people?

· Quirk Be careful not to go overboard with this one, but do they have a favorite phrase? A funny habit? An object to which they attach great emotion? And odd hobby or a physical reaction to stress?

· Pressure Apply powerful pressure and don't let up. The ticking clock gets louder and they have no choice but to take action, even if that's the last thing they'd ever want to do.

These are just a few ideas. What sorts of things connect you to a character? Are they universal?

It's all better with friends.

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