Every human perspective has value, but some are second nature to writers while others are more unfamiliar and intimidating to explore. That isn’t an excuse to exclude characters who are in different life stages than us, however. As Christian storytellers, our goal is to represent the full spectrum of the human experience, no matter how tricky it can be.
I’ve noticed a growing and concerning trend among writers when they’re developing a cast of characters. In an effort to make a protagonist memorable, they slap on a unique, edgy, and complex moniker and call it a day. The conviction that names carry more significance than just a pretty string of letters has been lost.
The newest character who’s taken up residence inside your mind is a vibrant being with compelling desires and deep emotions. But the instant you pluck him out and flatten him onto a page, he becomes limper than wet cardboard. You love this character. So how do you pump blood into his paper veins?
Killing a side character isn’t bad storytelling. But some writers (particularly those in the fantasy genre) tend to rely on death to catalyze character growth, which makes it predictable. Even worse, it trivializes the loss of a human being. As Christian authors, our stories ought to preserve and emphasize the value of life, and we can’t do that if we’re crucifying characters purely to keep the plot moving.
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?