In her fourth article for Writers & Artists, Roz Morris discuss the importance of character development in your novel - and how you can make sure your characters are the kind readers connect with and remember long after they've turned the final page.
Why is character so important? Isn't plot enough?
A story certainly needs a plot. We have to feel the characters will do something interesting and it will be a tale worth telling. But part of the reason a story is interesting is who it’s happening to. Everyone’s unique, and a well-drawn character will help create a unique plot. Put Jane Eyre, Mrs de Winter, Elizabeth Bennet, Oliver Twist or Philip Marlowe in an identical situation, and you’ll get five completely different stories.
When we feel a character is real, the plot events matter more. For instance, Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach is about the last straggling survivors of a nuclear war. So on the one level we are drawn in by intellectual curiosity about an unusual situation. How did it happen? What does the world look like? What will the end be like? How will people die?
But Shute also shows what it’s like to live under those conditions; how different people cope with the knowledge that they will die. Some of them are in denial, and talk about the future as though they will live for many more years. One of them buys a sports car and hopes he’ll have a fatal accident while driving it. These people are individuals and their psychological depth transforms an intriguing idea into a real and heartbreaking story.
Here are some of the ways writers can create characters who bring a plot to life.
Engage our emotions
Great stories get you emotionally involved with the characters. This connection doesn’t happen automatically. There has to be a deliberate moment where the writer reaches out to the reader.
This principle has an equivalent in real life. There are plenty of ways we can have people around us and not feel connected to them. Imagine you’re squashed up against commuters in a rush-hour train, or crowding into a lift, or standing in a queue. They’re bodies, not people - unless something breaks the ice. The same happens with characters in novels. Until the writer reveals a character’s humanity, they are just a name on a page, or a job description: a policeman, a gladiator, a doctor.
How do writers do this? With the things we all have in common - a history, relationships, things that matter. Take The Hunger Games. Like On The Beach, it’s an intriguing story idea - a reality gameshow where teenagers kill each other. But the author Suzanne Collins doesn’t coast on that, she works hard to make us aware of her main character’s humanity. So we begin with the heroine Katniss, her family who she feels responsible for and her close friend Gale. This hooks us to her.
Then Collins adds emotional conflict. This is the other great hook that writers use. Emotional conflict makes us curious to know what happens to a character. Katniss is made to team up with Peta, a boy who makes her uncomfortable. The show’s organisers want to present them as star-crossed lovers to boost the ratings, which will help keep them alive, but in the end one of them will have to kill the other. And Katniss is torn even further because her soulmate Gale will see everything on TV. This turns her story into a daisy-chain of personal dilemmas - and dilemmas really hook our attention.
Once you’ve got the reader involved with your main character, here’s how to keep them riveted:
Make the character want something - badly enough to step outside their comfort zone and go on an adventure.
Make them motivated - they must keep looking for it or trying to achieve it, even when the situation goes from bad to worse
Where will these desires and motivations come from? From their distinct natures, urges, fears and ambitions. (I refer you to the gallery of individuals in paragraph 1.)
What goes wrong with main characters?
In my experience mentoring writers, I’ve noticed three common problems that writers encounter when creating their protagonist.
1. The writer is too desperate to make them likable
Although we want to enjoy the time we spend with a novel’s characters, writers are often too anxious about this. While their supporting characters are realistic and relatable, their central characters are saintly paragons, who everyone likes. They never do even one bad thing. This usually makes the reader loathe them.
Actually, readers have a high tolerance for imperfection. As I said earlier, it’s humanity we connect with. Katniss in The Hunger Games isn’t likable but we feel for her situation on an essential level, so we want to find out how it’s resolved.
And your main character doesn’t need good qualities to keep the reader snared. Patricia Highsmith’s character Tom Ripley is not nice at all, but he is certainly compelling. Highsmith accomplishes this first of all with a glimpse of his Achilles heel: in the opening scene he’s being followed and is worried that his past is catching up with him. Once the crisis passes, he’s back to his tricks, but for a few moments we have engaged with him on a human level and seen the tightrope he walks. Plus, of course, his intriguing psychology.
But what do you do if your protagonist is outright nice? I recommend writers take them out of their comfort zone. What worked for Tom Ripley will also humanise your goody two-shoes. Put them in a situation they are not at ease or in control - I call it the discomfort zone. Show them getting irritable or worried. Everybody does, and it can show who they really are.
Bring out a little of their worst - and then we’ll accept their best.
2. The writer fails to show us the characters’ internal life in establishing scenes
I’ve talked a lot about demonstrating a character’s humanity, and here’s where it goes wrong. When writers are showing us what matters to a protagonist, they often leave out a crucial step.
Maybe they want us to understand he’s bored with life on his dull planet, or wishes he could grow up faster, or wants to get out of jail. So the writer shows troublesome and frustrating events - perhaps the character fights with his best friend or the car breaks down. But they forget to show us how the character feels about them. The character does not seem to react at all.
Usually when I talk to the writer, they confirm that they want the character to be wound to snapping point. But they assumed the reader would fill that in.
Suppose we are introduced to the character in a scene that shows him being fired from his job. The writer might be thinking: ‘Everyone knows this is bad. It’s obvious the character will feel crushed.’ But actually there are a thousand ways to respond to this situation - liberation, fear, vengefulness, a mix of all of those. If we don’t know the character, we don’t know which it is.
Later in the book when we know the character better, we can fill the blanks. Early on, we can’t - and we don’t want to.
And often it backfires further. Because the writer doesn’t show a reaction, the reader often assumes the event washed over the hero; it didn’t matter.
If a scene is meant to establish character, don’t forget to show the character’s reaction.
3. Creating enigmatic characters who are empty instead of intriguing
Readers love a mysterious character. That inscrutable person who won’t reveal his feelings to the reader or the other characters, who makes us uneasy, who transmits a certain something that doesn’t add up.
But many writers make their mystery characters empty instead of intriguing.
Enigmatic characters need to excite our curiosity. This is not done by under-drawing them. You need to create conundrums - dates that don’t add up, people in their history who don’t exist, things they do that don’t make sense.
Rather than create an expressionless blank, the writer should give us hints that the character holds plenty of cards but is keeping them close to his chest.
If a character is mysterious, entice the reader to notice it.
What about the antagonist?
Your bad guys are as important as your heroes. But first a quick definition: villains and antagonists aren’t necessarily the same thing. An antagonist might be anyone whose interests oppose your hero’s. A man on the run needs to evade the policeman who is out to arrest him. Neither of them is evil, they’re both doing what they have to do.
But a villain intends evil. They have different moral rules. They are often a brush with the dark side of humanity in the form of murderers, psychopaths, con-men, assassins or serial killers - and they’re often fascinating figures in fiction.
Whether antagonist or villain, here are the common mistakes that occur when writers create bad guys:
1. They act in isolation
Writers often don’t like to give antagonists a home-tribe. Their heroes will have family, colleagues and other supporters, but the antagonist seems to operate on their own. This doesn’t make sense. Antagonists and villains are not necessarily loners. They might have organisations, colleagues, henchmen, fellow gang members. They also might have genuine friends who believe in their cause. But if they have nobody, it looks odd. Even Tom Ripley has other characters around him, although he doesn’t care if they live or die.
2 Antagonists are weak
Writers are often reluctant to give antagonists any good characteristics. But the antagonist must present a significant problem for the protagonist, otherwise they will be easy to defeat. This is only credible if they are resourceful and motivated - which are positive traits. What’s more, if they are villains they are they are likely to be original and inventive because they don’t abide by our rules. Don’t forget your antagonists will have strengths.
3. Antagonists’ motivation is thin
Why do antagonists do what they do? Often writers want them to be ‘simply evil’ - but that’s hard for a reader to grasp. If we see why their goal matters, we understand what keeps them going and makes them go to such lengths. Even if they want to do something extreme such as rule the world, why is that? Do they feel it’s their birthright? Do they think they can make the world a better place?
Motivation makes an antagonist more formidable because we see what keeps them going.
Even if they simply revel in cruelty, we still have to understand why. Cruel people are nothing without victims, so you need to show the kick they get. When this unpleasant part of the puzzle is added, we understand why they’ll be hard to stop.
Whatever genre you write, whatever your story is about, great characters are the key to hooking your reader - and keeping them until the final page.
Roz Morris is an author, editor, writing tutor and book doctor. She has worked in publishing for more than 20 years, run editorial departments, ghostwritten bestselling novels for other writers and also written fiction herself. She has a no-nonsense blog for writers and self-publishers, Nail Your Novel.