On Writing: Character, Character, Character

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I used to worry heavily about concepts, about extreme details about setting, worldbuilding, plot, and pacing. All of those things are nice, and when they come together, they can make for a fine book, but what differentiates a book most readers find good or even great, is having a relatable protagonist that people can care about. What you do with your viewpoint character is everything in terms of how someone connects with or doesn’t connect with a book.

I’ve done a couple different genres, though they’re both within the fantastic, readers don’t usually cross over between science fiction and a YA steampunk fantasy, but in my case, they did. And actually, though I receive many comments “I don’t usually like YA or steampunk” the vast majority of readers tell me they liked my book anyway. It’s because of the attention to character.

I’m in beta reads for a novella that is actually completely different than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s frightening. The style is almost contrary to what I write. What I’ve found is that despite my fears, every one of my readers has loved it so far and recommends I release it with only minor editing. Why? I spent a good amount of time ensuring that the character feels as real as possible

There’s a couple of things I discovered of how to do that:

  1. Keep the viewpoint tight. Close your eyes. Pretend you are the viewpoint character. Experience what they experience and how they do it. Make sure that you don’t drift around in that, it should be focused in a character’s world at all times. What are they feeling? What’s around them? What’s it smell like? These things are important.
  2. Add in a couple of things a character is passionate about. I have one story where it’s baseball, another where it’s gardening. Even though a lot of my readers probably don’t care about either of those things, they understand the feeling of caring that intensely—and that’s what’s important. It doesn’t have to directly reflect in the plot, though if one does it’s helpful.
  3. Relations are important. Does the protagonist have family? An amazing friend? A pet ferret they love? Those are things we all think about, and if your character is thinking about them, people will connect to that sensation.
  4. Details are everything. When your character’s stomach is grumbling, what is he thinking about eating? You don’t need to overwhelm your work but if you have 2-3 of these, just like passions, the character will come across as more real.
  5. Purge words that take you out of that “He knew” “He saw that” “He understood”. Those things are obvious to a sentence from in a perspective.

Most problems I have in fiction is when the work is communicated dryly, and doesn’t have the above points. This happens a lot, especially in short stories, as writers in those works often feel that they have to cut character expressions to keep the story tight. This ruins stories, and is why most short fiction is unreadable these days. Go look at Anne McCaffrey and Spider Robinson’s short stories. They do NOT cut their character points in any of their great short works. The modern minimalist way of communicating a plot for a plot twist is boring and overdone, and is why no one reads short fiction (but that’s another story for another blog…).

Even in action scenes, the way a character thinks, feels, reacts is important. If you just communicate the events as they happen, it will read like a news report, and cause a reader’s eyes to glaze over. You’ll note that even news reports don’t do that anymore, but work on sensationally tugging at your emotions. The way the characters feel during these scenes is very important in the same manner. In action, however, be careful not to have so much thought that it slows things down. It’s a fine balance, but very achievable.

There’s a big difference how you feel when you read:

He hit me in the face. My cheekbone cracked. I raised my fists and jabbed back.

He hit me in the face. I heard my cheekbone crack. Pain erupted through my face as it began to swell. I wouldn’t let this bastard get away with it. I raised my fists and jabbed back.

It can probably use some editing, but the emotional response actually supersedes editing. If you can capture that, the reader will forgive a lot more of your errors than if you don’t have that. It’s about the perspective.

Another common issue I see, especially with independent authors, is making the characters “the bad ass to end all badasses!” Confident characters are great, because it reflects confident writing, but that can only go so far. I actually made mistakes in my early drafts of my first couple books of having the characters be too realistic in how they reacted when they were thrust into situations beyond them. They whined, if only in internal monologue, and failed externally. It’s something to watch out for as well. This created a problem, but most fiction I see actually has the opposite of this.

I’ve read many a fiction where I start to parody the voice in my head. I get a gruff, deep voice and actually mock them with my wife, because they read like cheesy 80s action films. I preface this with “I’m a cop… and I’m a damn good one too.” when I read it. When the characters get so far into this bad assery attitude, some people do like it, but a lot of readers roll their eyes. It comes across as phony, because people have faults, people aren’t on 100% of the time. I’ve never seen someone in person talk about their navy seal background and how they can break the bones of terrorists before they can even blink while hanging out and having coffee. If someone did do that, I’d be frightened that they’re a sociopath. If your characters act like this in order to tell how awesome they are all the time, and then they have low stakes battles where they seem to be unable to lose, you’ll lose your readers in the same way.

Everyone gets scared. Everyone has fear. No one is an expert in everything. Communicate those moments and it will mitigate a lot of the above. Like anything else I mentioned, just a couple instances can change the whole perception of a scene or work.

The final thing I’ll note is the protagonist especially needs something for someone to root for. A reader wants to see that the person is a good person at heart – or just a person at heart depending on how it is. Showing their reaction to family, to pets, to friends, caring about something besides themselves or their direct goal at points adds little touches that help with this. The main character in the work I’ve been beta reading does a lot of charity work, for example. It doesn’t drive the plot so much, but it does drive how he reacts to certain elements of the plot, and that connects with a reader.

Some food for thought! Trust me, focusing on these things will improve the way readers react to your fiction.



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