One of the biggest problems I have when reading a book is that if the characterization is flat I will soon find myself wandering away from the book to doing other things. This is not due to my tendency to write every day no matter the circumstances, but actually lies in the strength of the characters in the book I am reading.
There are a few things we writers can do to ensure the captivation of our reader and all five of them involve the way we create our characters.
- Biography – One of the most common problems with flat main characters is that they do not seem to have a detailed background. This background may never appear in the novel, but if it is absent an astute reader might immediately notice the lack of depth that is created by the writer’s knowledge of that character’s background or lack thereof. I will make detailed notes about each of my main characters, and I usually list all of the following: role in the novel, occupation, physical description, personality, habits/mannerisms, facial expressions, background, internal conflict, external conflict and any notes. I also pick out a picture of someone whom I would cast in the “film” that is going on in my mind when I’m writing to keep that character grounded in reality.
- Connection – The characters we love in fiction are characters that we can identify with. The reason that Tes in Divergent is so relatable to teenage girls is because she is not only a teenage girl, but she is an outcast and feels awkward in her own society. She also has a fear of being violated by a male which is the fear of many teen girls today. The characters we create must be directed toward the demographic we are trying to reach with our text. If we can connect our characters to our readers and the readers can find something of themselves in our characters, they will be more apt to read to the conclusion of the novel to see what happens to that character.
- Dark Secret – Some of the best characters have dark secrets that they don’t want to be revealed. This mirrors our own lives in that many people have darker parts of their personality or events in their past that they would rather not discuss with anyone. A character’s dark secret can be the main motivation for the actions they take in the plot of the novel.
- Hidden Talent – This is true of most great heroic characters. Luke Skywalker was a whiny farm boy who managed to find the courage within himself to bring down the Empire by convincing his own wayward father to support him. Will Graham managed to find the courage to work past what Hannibal Lector did to him to focus on catching Francis Dollarhyde. Characters with hidden talents are necessary for them to grow and change throughout the novel. It is a necessary component to a successful heroic character.
- Foils – All great characters have foils or sidekicks whose opposite personalities or character traits mirror the heroes they support or obstruct. Abigail Williams’s evil is mirrored by the virtue of Elizabeth Proctor. Luke Skywalker’s wide eyed bravery is mirrored by Han Solo’s cautious reluctance. Great characters that grab readers are surrounded by peripheral characters that aide the character traits of the hero. This makes for more interesting main characters who keep the reader invested, and when we kill off these peripheral characters we often give the main character the impetus to move forward and cross the threshold into heroism, such as Agent Colson in The Avengers.
Did I leave anything out? If I did, or if you have other tricks you use to keep readers invested in your characters so that they will be compelled to finish your novel, post below. We all learn from each other.