Writing Characters for the Ages by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Writing Characters for the Ages!” Enjoy!
When you reach for a favorite book, the one you’ve already read, or perhaps read multiple times, what draws you to that story? Sometimes it’s the plot, but usually it’s the characters you remember. They drive the plot and make it memorable. What is it about Pride and Prejudice that has made it a best seller for 200 years? Not so much the boy-meets-girl part. It’s the pride and prejudice of Elizabeth and Darcy—as well as the missteps and shenanigans of the secondary characters.
How can you create characters that readers want to come back to time and again? Five elements are crucial. To write fully rounded, interesting characters, they need to have:
Your protagonist has to be strong to overcome the obstacles that lie in her path and block her way to achieving her dreams. What are those strengths? Maybe she’s an optimist, a terrific cook, a loyal friend, a black-belt judo practitioner. Sometimes a character’s strength points to a weakness. For example, if your character is optimistic, she might see life in a rosy glow, cheering on friends, encouraging people to achieve their dreams. But that very quality could mean that she spends her life trying to make others happy (and not always—or ever—succeeding) at the expense of her own happiness. If she’s a black-belt judo expert, maybe she’s intolerant of others’ physical weakness.
Characters need flaws. A strong, smart, courageous, kind, character with no chinks in his armor is boring—and he doesn’t give you any way to build internal conflict. The most interesting characters are those with deep flaws—think Rochester in Jane Eyre—who give readers more to think about and who also have the capacity to change. But even if your protagonist doesn’t lock his wife in the attic, the flaws he has help readers connect to him. When you’re establishing your characters’ flaws, think of their strengths. Is your protagonist a take-charge athlete or CEO? Maybe his flaw is that he can be domineering and blind to others’ needs.
Everyone has dreams. Show your readers what your characters want—to fall in love, move to Tibet, kill their nemesis, steal a million. They’ll root for them to succeed—or even to fail! Showing what your protagonist’s deepest desire is reveals who she is and helps readers relate to her. Showing what your villain’s deepest desire is creates a rich and memorable character your readers won’t soon forget (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?).
Just as everyone has dreams, everyone has fears. Give your characters fears that everyone understands and probably shares. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Bruce Wayne fears bats. When you give your characters these common fears, you give your readers another reason to bond with them.
Your characters approach their conflicts—and search for solutions—based on how they see the world. Are they optimists or pessimists? Buddhist or Jedi warrior? Accountant or movie stuntman? British or Italian? Each choice you make for your character’s personality, occupation, background, ancestry—even physical appearance—affects how your character understands the world and responds to it.
- Understand your characters
Each of these five elements has many nuances, but getting at least the basics down for each character is essential. Consider writing a bio of each character before you begin. Knowing your characters well helps you understand how each is likely to behave in any given situation. That can stimulate your plot and simplify your writing at the same time—as well as make your characters more real and memorable for your readers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kay Keppler is an author Zero Gravity Outcasts, Betting on Hope, Gargoyle: Three Enchanting Romance Novellas, and editor of fiction and nonfiction –Angel’s Kiss and Outsource It! She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at [email protected] to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.