Today in Revision-o-Rama, I want to talk about character. What makes a good one? A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. Talking about them one by one is just the way I’m organizing my posts this month. So a stellar character must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great characters to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here.
Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main character to anchor everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… LEVIATHAN is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two characters.)
A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book. In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions:
- What is your character’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
- What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
- What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
- What are your character’s secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
- What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
- What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? Their needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
- What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
- What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
- What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one the character most wants to change? The one that will never change? Why?
- What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
- What is the character’s past? What is their present? What is their future?
When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every character in your book. You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your main character? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.
When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.
A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into your character’s head). I’d say that, out of the above questions, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.
As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your character takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation. Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.
In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character. If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!
We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!)
And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each character. What each character is really doing in a scene. If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!