I once did an event with an author many years ago. A student asked about plot and I said, “Your character makes decisions and choices. And those choices move the plot forward.”
“Not always,” my co-teacher said. “Not in a plot driven novel.”
I had read this person’s work and while I found it okay, I wasn’t grabbed by the characters. They weren’t interesting. They were flat and, even in exciting moments, I could close the novel because I just didn’t care.
Like in real life, I want to know the people of books so if they fail or lose something or go through a hard event, I am rooting for them. If they get that kiss or lose that boy or find their mother or lose the kingdom, I want to laugh or weep for them.
Knowing your characters helps you be able to write a well-rounded character. Even if all the details don’t show up on the page.
Here are a few things to ponder.
- Why is this the right character for this novel?
- Make your antagonist the lead of the book. What happens to the story?
- How are your main character and the antagonist the same?
- What are the most important things (people) to your main character?
- To the antagonist?
- Morally, how is your main character different than other people in the novel?
- How are they the same?
- Every character should have a truth. What are the truths of your characters?
- Every character should have a want. What are the wants of the characters in your book?
- How is your character’s wants pro or con to her moral fiber?
- Finding out you are more like your mother than you had hoped may be a negative for you. Who is your character similar to? How does this help or hinder who she is?
- If you have to write a song for your character, using the tune to Imagine Dragon’s THUNDER, what would the words be?
- Everyone has secrets. I have secrets no one knows unless they were somehow involved in specific incidents in my life. What are your MC’s secrets? How does this motivate her? Change her? Influence her decision making?
- Your character has to leave, now. What does she take with her?
- Zombies are coming. Your character cannot get her invalid father out of the house and must run for her life. What does she tell him before she closes the door?
- What minor details (favorite color, favorite treat, favorite shirt etc) does your character show in your book already?
- If your character had ten adjectives to describe herself what would she say?
- What would you say?
Answer these questions–and make up your own and share them–for all the major players in your writing. And if you like these kinds of questions, let me know and I’ll come up with a few more.
“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” Abigail Van Buren
- How does your main character treat others?
- Choosing three other characters in your book, decide how they really are, by the way they treat people they know.
- By the way they treat strangers.
- How does your MC feel about animals? Why?
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters” Albert Einstein
- Does your character lie? Why or why not?
- What would happen if she did lie? How would the story be more compelling?
- What is the worst thing your character could do? Why is this the worst?
- Write a scene where your character lies, and is caught, by someone who is important to her.
- Do only the *bad* people lie in your book?
“If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Jesus
- I think another way of saying this is, Actions speak louder than words. How does your character show her love? Her commitment? Her anger?
- Write a scene where your character harms someone by her actions.
- Our bad characters cannot be purely evil. How is your antagonist good?
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln
- Your MC ends up with information she shouldn’t have. What does she do with it?
- All characters must have weaknesses. What are your character’s weaknesses?
- There should be a point, in every character’s growth, when they realize they have all the power, or none of it. What happens to your character when they hit this place in the book?
- If you MC realizes she is more like the bad guy than she thought, well, that can be very interesting. Write a scene where your MC comes up against the darker part of herself.
I love a good character. Who doesn’t?
Guardians of the Galaxy. The guy Chris Pratt plays. Hilarious. He makes me laugh. A little off balance in the way he attacks trouble–more human than Star Lord. I go along for the ride. Plus, he’s cute.
Worf in Star Trek. He was one tough cookie. And that voice! Saw Worf without his makeup and realized I was in love with the Klingon, not the human who played him.
Heath Ledger’s Joker. So crazy. So strange. So weird. Not a thing like me. I’m interested.
How do you make YOUR character interesting? How do you choose who will be the lead in your novel? Could any character you’ve written be the lead in any novel you’ve written?
- Who are five of your favorite movie characters? List why you like them.
- Who are five of your favorite book characters? List why you like them.
- How do you discover a new character?
- How much of you is in your MC?
- What are your character’s weaknesses?
It’s hard to read a novel with an unlikable character. How do you make that character worth following?
- Humor. Make her funny. Write a scene where we get to know your main character as she gets out of an awkward situation.
- Make her want something that’s important. Write a scene where the character’s desire is revealed.
- Make your character relatable. “I get that!” “How do you know how I feel?” “I’ve been there.” When we connect with a main character, we’re interested in sticking around. Write a list of 50 things about your main character. Now do that for each of your other major players. Think outside the box. Think backstory. Think, “Who is she, really?
Let your character want something.
- What does your character want?
- How do you establish this at the beginning of the book?
- How do you keep your character from getting what she wants?
- Is her desire reasonable?
- Will she fail? Why or why not?
Let your character love.
- If your character cares and we see it, we can feel the emotion of the book. So, who does she love?
- Who will she lose?
- Who does she hate?
- Who could she live without?
- How does that antagonist fit in the story?
A few more hints for you as you work this next year, getting ready for WIFYR.
- Here’s a great way to self-edit. After those pages are done, here are a few steps that will help you catch a lot of bad writing, confused writing, icky writing.
- Read your manuscript, silently, on the screen. Make appropriate changes.
- Read your manuscript, out loud, on the screen. Make appropriate changes.
- Print your manuscript. Read silently. Make appropriate changes.
- Print your manuscript. Read out loud. Make appropriate changes.
- Have someone read your work for you, making appropriate suggestions.
- Have someone read your work, out loud, to you. Now you can hear if someone stumbles, questions, worries or wonders over something.
- Study how the very best writers do it. When you read, read like a writer, with a pen in your hand, making notes in the margins of books. Look at voice, how a writer twists the plot or comes up with new description. Mark it all. Learn from it all.
- Watch your body parts. Rolling eyes, shrugging shoulders, standing up and sitting down etc etc etc. Some things just don’t need too much description. That said, I love the idea of comparing a kid and a flamingo. Don’t ask me why.
- Write your heart. If you do, you will write truth. And there is something lovely or ugly or hilarious or frightening etc about truth.
- I am a William Zinsser fan, owning several of his books on craft. Here are ten tips I found online. http://www.openculture.com/2012/04/ray_bradbury_gives_12_pieces_of_writing_advice_to_young_authors_2001.html
It’s just less than one year until Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers 2019.
Next year is our twentieth year and we are tentatively scheduled for the second full week of June. That’s right. June 10-June 14, 2019. And you can expect this will be a week of learning, celebration and fun stuff. Plus more learning.
As well, several of us have decided to write daily for the next year, so we have new work (or revised work) when the conference rolls around. The rules is this–you must write at least 6 days a week. One paragraph, one page, 100 pages. Just write.
If you want to join us, sign up on Facebook.
13 Questions/Thoughts/Exercises to Help the Conflict in your Novel
- What IS the conflict in your novel?
- What does your main character want?
- What five ways do you keep your character from getting what he wants?
- Do you start the story in the right place? Is it the day something new happens? Is a conflict hinted at on page one? Is the major conflict revealed as the main character moves forward into the beginning of the middle of the novel?
- What is the part of your story that creates the most tension? Why?
- Write your main plot as a yes or no question. In film, this is the major dramatic question (MDQ).
- What is the definition of “inciting incident?” Joseph Campbell says it’s a call to action for the main character. What does this mean?
- What is the inciting incident, or that first point of no return, for your main character?
- Write the inciting incident from several (at least three) points of view. How does each character view this event? Is your main character the most interesting?
- Remember these? What is your book and why?
- Man against man
- Man against society
- Man against self
- Man again nature
- Man against technology
- Make sure you have only ONE main plot or you will wrestle trying to control and write plots of equal weight. While you should have subplots, none should be more important than that problem you reveal in the MDQ.
- I think some of the best conflicts result from relationships. What are you finding in your book?
- Our good friend Richard Peck said, “You are no better than your first line.” And that’s the truth with everything. Make sure each thing you write, is your best. Always.