Back in 2012, I started writing my first fantasy/sci-fi novel. I chatted about the characters with my friends, enjoyed coming up with scads of different plot lines, and experimented with all kinds of tropes and techniques. But despite the effort I went to, my manuscript stayed in a constant state of flux. Beta readers, though quick to offer support and encouragement, couldn’t tell me why. Not until year five did I begin to see the truth.
Have you ever been writing a scene or chapter and something felt wrong? In the moment, you couldn’t name a specific detail that needed to be added, removed, or changed. That’s because singling out a problem as you’re pouring ideas onto the page is almost impossible. But even after you finished, you were still dissatisfied.
Characters are like a magnetic force that either pulls readers into the story or repels them. If they can identify with the cast, they’ll be more forgiving of other mistakes. But even a riveting plot, intriguing setting, and beautiful prose can’t save a story if the characters aren’t relatable. Readers need a reason to become emotionally invested, so all of your primary characters must be three-dimensional, not just your protagonist.
When my children were growing up, they performed in the theater. Occasionally they earned starring roles, but more often than not, they played side characters. That didn’t stop them from trying to steal the show, however. Their facial expressions became more animated during group scenes, or they delivered their lines with extra drama. Since their antics amped up the audience’s reaction, sometimes the director overlooked their schemes. But, in other moments, she stepped in to remind them where the focus needed to remain—on the lead. As authors, we face the same issues with our own side characters.
What makes a story memorable? One of the most popular responses from readers is characters. Characters give readers an emotional reason to care about the story. But this leads to an essential question: Are your characters unforgettable?
When Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit to experience the taste of both good and evil, they consciously rebelled against God. Broken, they plunged into an existence fraught with sorrow. In the shadow of their future, the rest of humanity plunged as well. We now live submerged, choking on water we weren’t meant to breathe. The people around us thrash and cough and drown every day. But how often do we think about the fall when we’re developing characters?
Many writers, myself included, tend to devalue short stories because of their brevity. “Real” writers are supposed to craft novels. Some of the most famous authors of the twentieth century, however, were masters of the short story. Think William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor, and O. Henry. At only 5 or 10 percent the length of a novel, a short story may seem far less intimidating, if not downright easy, to write. But short stories come with their own set of challenges that can help hone your skills for larger projects.
You’ve probably heard the expression “That was epic!” thousands of times. But what does it actually mean? Epic is used to describe a myriad of experiences, but we typically treat it as a synonym for big, awe-inspiring, or just plain cool. Movies are full of epic clashes between good and evil. And if you’re hungry enough, hamburgers can be epic too.
Have you ever filled out a character questionnaire and wondered how the protagonist’s birthday, favorite color, and hobbies are supposed to enhance your story? Many of the questionnaires you can find online focus on superficial details. But even the ones that probe deeper may fail to flesh out a character’s worldview. Every person has one, whether they acknowledge it or not, and it defines who they are, how they think, and why they live the way they do. Without it, you’ll struggle to shape characters readers can empathize with.
The cinnamon roll. A smol bean. We invent all kinds of affectionate nicknames for the cuddly teddy-bear characters we adore. But what about characters who have a few prickles? Or are downright cold? As writers, we strive to create characters readers will root for. Otherwise our books won’t stay open for long. But not every story requires a happy-go-lucky Olaf. Sometimes a story needs an emotionally detached Elsa. But how do we endear aloof characters to readers? If we tinker with four areas, we can warm these characters up just enough that readers won’t get frostbitten.