June 22, 2015
Make Those Characters Jump Off the Page
I recently read the first few dozen pages of a manuscript for a YA novel, which the author had decided to submit to a publishing company for consideration. Unfortunately, it didn’t take but about five pages before I realized the writing was “flat.” One of the characteristics of “flatness” is the lack of character development. The author failed to include hardly any physical features or any sense of the emotional or mental state, (i.e. their likes and dislikes, virtues and vices, qualities that make them human, not cardboard) of all the characters except the main protagonist, and those descriptions were scanty. I felt the author needed to do a study on character development, start his manuscript over again, and make his characters come alive.
So, how do you make your characters come alive in that next great American novel you’re writing? Let’s look at ten characteristics that will make those characters jump off that page:
- Make each character uniquely different with different names. A few years ago, a friend critiqued the first four chapters of the Amish fiction I wrote, and she caught a big mistake. I had two characters named “Joe.” Yikes!
- Give each character his own distinctive voice. After a few chapters, your reader should be able to tell who’s speaking without even looking at the tag.
- Have your characters working jobs or going to school or doing “something” relevant to the plot. If you’re writing a murder mystery, your main character probably shouldn’t be babysitting puppies for a living.
- When you name your characters, give them names that fit their personality, body type, nationality, etc. Now picture this: your character is a 220-pound Italian hunk, built like Superman and he’s a policeman, then you give him the name “Wilbur.”
- If you’re writing fiction with different viewpoints, only get inside the head of your main characters…and only one P.O.V. per scene. Over the years, I’ve read books by one of the leading writers of Amish fiction in the country, but I had much trouble following her because of the multiple P.O.V.s. In one book, there were 16 P.O.V.s. I was so confused, I had to start over and write down everyone’s name, who they were, and how important they were to the story. After about 75 pages, I gave up on the book. This author has a big name, but because I don’t care to try to unscramble all those P.O.V.s, she’s not one of my favorites.
- Build your characters a little at a time as you write the novel. The plot should “thicken” at the same time you start to describe your characters more vividly and get them totally involved in the action.
- Even though you’re writing fiction, make your characters authentic. Interview policeman, veterinarians, computer geeks, or whomever so you have a thorough understanding of their job descriptions. In book seven of my Keystone Stables horse series, I developed a scene with a barn fire. Before doing so, I went to the local firemen and interviewed them to get the details of how the fire company would handle a barn fire in a countryside setting. I asked what kind of equipment they needed, what certain names of the trucks were, and how they’d tackle the task. The account in my book is accurate and detailed, even though the book is fiction.
- Start each characters’ names with different letters. How confusing would this be? Sam told Susie that Stella was going to be with Savannah the night of the social. Sheesh! Who’s who in that maze of words?
- For at least your main characters, give them some depth by including some history about them. They didn’t just hatch from eggs the day you started writing about them. (Or did they?) Build character sketches for each of them. I know some writers who give their characters full families, birthdays, college degrees, bank accounts in Sweden, and so on to “flesh them out” all before the book manuscript is even started! Details DO matter when you’re writing about people. Write so that your reader thinks he/she can almost hear your characters breathe.
- Have your characters less than perfect. Develop flaws in their appearances or personalities, which they must overcome or accept as the plot unfolds. No one likes to read about a character, who seems too good to be true. In the long run, that character will be too good to be true, and he/she will turn your reader right off.
So there you have it. Flesh out your characters, and you’ll have a best-seller on your hands and on the shelves of book stores across the land.
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