Content Of Your Character
There’s no point having a story by the end of which the reader will know who your main character is and what he’s about.
You may think that the purpose of the story is to reveal this and that’s it’s intriguing for the reader not to be too sure where a character’s loyalties lie. That would be wrong.
Did you have a good idea of what kind of person Harry was before he got to Hogwart’s? Did you have a reasonable idea about Katniss before she got to the games?
The initial part of a story is to tell the reader the character’s values and beliefs. Once things kick off, then it’s time to test those values and beliefs.
A Plot Problem Is A Character Problem
If a story seems a little dull, if the plot doesn’t seem to be very engaging, you could deal with it by having more stuff happen, more people running around, new characters, additional subplots and so forth.
Usually, though, the problem is not in what’s happening, the problem is who’s doing it.
If the character hasn’t been created with enough depth, what they get up to will feel arbitrary and unsatisfying. If the plot isn’t holding people’s attention, the first place you should look is character.
A Character Needs A MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is the thing a character wants. It’s what he sets out to find, hide, build or destroy. Its existence is what drives a story forward.
It was a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, and the reason he gave it such a silly name is because he believed it didn’t really matter what it was, just as long as it existed and the need it represented was clear.
The important thing is that it’s tangible. An object, a person, a place. Some thing. If a character wants to be happy, that isn’t a MacGuffin. If he wants to be happy by stealing the Hope Diamond and becoming rich, then the diamond is the MacGuffin.
But you could replace the diamond with any similar object and it would work just as well. The important thing to remember is that it needs to be a thing, not an idea or an attitude.
Resist Giving Characters A Helping Hand
It is tempting, especially at the beginning of a story, to have things happen in a way that is convenient, just to get the ball rolling. A new guy starts at work and our heroine likes the look of him. Later that evening she’s in the supermarket doing a little shopping and who should be buying olives at the deli counter but that guy from work…
Obviously that scenario is perfectly plausible. We run into friends or work colleagues all the time. You can be visiting a foreign city, walk round a corner and bump into someone you went to school with and haven’t seen in years.
But the temptation for a writer to lend a hand, to put their character in the right place at the right time, makes it harder to get to know the character. You are in fact delaying the start of the story.
Not All Characters Deserve To Be In The Story
It’s pretty easy to overpopulate a story.
Usually, it’s to make things seem realistic (an office should have people in it, a party should be crowded).
Sometimes it seems like a clever ploy (with 73 suspects the reader will never guess who the murderer is!).
Or it can be a way to give different types of readers someone to root for. These characters are the love story, these guys provide the adventure, this one will appeal to older women, this one to comedy fans…
Too many characters often make a story hard to follow, confuse the reader and create unnecessary complications. But once they’re in, taking them out can seem daunting, like pulling at a single loose thread that ends up unravelling the whole cardigan.
It’s really not that hard, though.
Writing Great Characters
You know how important a great main character is to a story. Sherlock Holmes or Elizabeth Bennett or Becky Sharp. Whether they’re fighting at the edge of a cliff or having a quiet moment of reflection or making a total ass of themselves, you want to be there with them. That’s the sort of thing you want to create, right?
But when you put your character down on paper, they’re a bit wishy-washy, a bit ordinary. They work in a boring office, or get stuck doing household chores. They’re waiting for someone to come along and make things interesting for them.
That’s okay, you’ve read books like that, where the ordinary character get swept up in an adventure, with romance and thrills and derring-do, right? Of course you have… but wait, what happened to writing great characters?
What Makes Your Character Think That’ll Work?
If a character’s family is in dire financial straits and our hero decides to rob a bank to pay off the debts that are threatening to make his family homeless, you can probably accept that as a plot for a certain kind of story.
However, if you start writing that story with just that information what you will get is a pretty flat, unengaging tale. The key element missing from the summary I provided above is why — why does the MC come up with that solution?
If you don’t know that, you don’t have a story.
Sympathy for the Devil
Make your MC likeable, right? Give the reader something to relate to. Give the bad boy a soft spot. Show he has his heart in the right place. A moment of selflessness. Save a cat. Rescue a turtle. Lend money to a chimp.
Which would you rather read about, a dull, tedious, sympathetic character, or an exciting, daring, son of a bitch?
Obviously you don’t have to make it one or the other, but I would suggest when choosing between interesting and sympathetic, the primary area of concern is how entertaining your character is, not how much they give to charitable causes.
Seeing is believing
The problem with most obvious and familiar emotions is that a word like ‘angry’ gives us an instant idea of what angry means, but not a picture. But when you refer to a specific time when a specific character got angry, what does that really mean? What does it look like? All you really convey is a general, clichéd concept of the kind of mood that person was in. You don’t put the reader in the scene, seeing it.
There are two ways to overcome this. First, you don’t describe the character in a static frame of ‘being’. Instead of examining the look on their face, you describe what they do because of the way they feel. So, Mary might tell Bill that she’s pregnant, and Bill might pick up her favourite hairbrush and hurl it out of the window.
However, sometimes you really just want the character sitting there emoting. So, instead of just saying ‘Sally sat there, looking sad’ what you can do is actually describe what Sally’s sad face looks like. Of course, Sally’s sad face may look like a lot of sad faces, and if you start going into the movements of her brow, and the quivering of her lips, you can soon end up with a face full of tics and spasms that seem to suggest someone having a stroke.
There are only a limited amount of moveable parts on a face and trying to come up with new and interesting ways to describe them can read a bit forced and stilted.
What you need to do is use ‘voice’ to make what you see less objective and clinical, and more from the perspective of the person doing the observing. In that way not only are you seeing the same old facial expressions from a singular and unique perspective, but it also enables you to reveal aspects of the person doing the observing. For example:
Jill’s smile slipped at the edges. Mike put his head down and raced to finish the bowl of ice cream. Three spoonfuls in, he heard the first sniff and chanced a look up. Jill’s mouth was a thin hard line, any higher and he knew he’d be locked into those unblinking blue eyes. He had ten seconds at most; keep shovelling. The spoon rattled against the empty bowl as the first tears plopped onto the tablecloth. Mike pushed the empty bowl aside and put a slightly chilled hand on top of hers. “Is something wrong?”
Actions speak louder than words