Bring your fiction to life by understanding the characters: An editor’s how-to guide

This is a post by Novel Publicity staff editor, Robb Grindstaff

How do you go about building up a main character, thickening their presence and getting a feel for how they’d react in the situations you drop them into? I noted Jonathon Franzen takes years to get the ‘voice’ of his characters just right. What if you don’t have that long? Sheila, Australia

There’s a simple, easy, overused, and therefore meaningless answer: Know your character.

Yeah, a bit of cliché. But the truth in this cliché is no one can know your character as well as you do, and readers can’t get to know (or care about) your character unless you know your character as well as you know your spouse, sibling, or best friend.

Peel back the layers

There are four primary layers or dimensions to people (and your character is a ‘people’): physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. These four layers combine to form a living, breathing person who will act and react in certain ways in certain situations at certain times, but are also complex enough to surprise and act outside of expectations.

  1. Physical: This means more than just physical description, but includes mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, body language. Imagine seeing your character in each scene. How does she stand, act, present herself? Confident, reserved, animated, lighthearted or serious? Use this visual to help readers see your character.
  2. Mental: What is your character thinking in each scene? What is her internal monologue? Use this to help develop your character’s voice.
  3. Emotional: What is your character feeling in each scene? What is her overall emotional state? Is she a stable, rational person? Is she highly strung, swinging from one emotional extreme to another? Is she basically a fearful person (and if so, what is she afraid of)? Is she lonely, afraid to get too close to others? Is she an eternal optimist who always thinks the best of others? Use your scenes to push her emotions to the limits, to force her out of her comfort zone, and to draw readers in to relate more closely to her.
  4. Spiritual:  What are her morals, her principles, her sense of ethics? Does your story put her in situations that challenge her most deeply held beliefs, force her to make tough decisions that create conflict at her very core? Use this layer to create a resonance with readers.

As the writer, you need to know how your character operates on each layer, how these layers affect each other, and how this combination will cause your character to act, think, and feel in any set of circumstances. In the right situation, facing the right conflict, your character may surprise you and act in unexpected ways. This is good. When readers are surprised, but in a way where they can comprehend and appreciate why the character acted that way, that’s when the character is getting inside the reader’s head.

There are probably as many methods to discovering (or creating) these layers as there are writers. Each writer has to develop his or her own way to create fully formed, compelling characters. I’ll toss out some methods I use, as well as some used by other writers.

Listen to your character

Sometimes a character shows up in my head uninvited, so I sit down and start typing as fast as I can while the character tells me her life story. I won’t even know what the novel’s story is until 10,000 words or more, but eventually it starts to come out. By then, I know my character inside and out.

Whether that works for anyone else or not, I have no idea. It’s how it happens for me sometimes. It feels a bit like method acting at times – I’m no longer the writer, but I become the character.

Character notebook

Some writers create a character notebook and write down everything they know about the character. You can keep adding to this notebook as you write your story and the character keeps revealing new things to you.

Write your character’s back story

I like to write the character’s back story and life history, and often veer off into the biographical history of the character’s mother and father. Sometimes this comes out in prose, which also helps to develop the character’s voice. Other times I jot notes, comments, questions, some stream-of-consciousness stuff. What interesting things happened to him as a child? Where did she grow up? What type of family? Lots of brothers and sisters, or an only child? Were they close to extended family such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins? Any early childhood traumas? What were her teenage years like? What did he want to be when he grew up? Why?

The key is to remember you’re writing this for you. It’s not back story, details and flashbacks you’re planning to include in the novel. The more you know about your character’s background, the more informed your writing will be about the character, and all that personality and psyche can naturally come through without dumping the back story on readers. However, you never know when you’re going to stumble onto something in this back story that will become key to your character or to the story conflict and needs to be included in some way.

Interview your character

Some writers may start with a plot or with a basic character type (or archetype) and need to fill out the characters later, whether during the outlining phase or during revisions. If you’ve got the basic character, but are looking for information to round her out to a more fully developed person, you could try interviewing her. There are lots of sample character interviews out there on the web and in books on writing, so search to find one that fits your needs and style. I could put up a couple links here, but this particular method doesn’t work for me, so I don’t have any particular website to recommend. But some writers swear by this, so give it a try.

Let your character speak

This happens naturally if you’re writing in first person because you’re writing THROUGH the character. If you’re writing in third person, you’re writing ABOUT the character rather than through the character, so it can be more distancing. If there’s distance between author and character, the gap between character and reader will be even greater.

To help get to know your character better and close that gap, to let the character’s voice develop, try writing (or rewriting) some scenes in first person. This isn’t to revise your book from third to first, or to include these first person segments in your manuscript, but to help you see the scene through the character’s eyes and hear the story from the character’s voice. You may learn some things about your character you didn’t know. You may discover layers you can include in your story. Your character’s voice, as well as those inner layers, may come into focus more sharply.

Another way to accomplish this is to keep a journal in the character’s first person voice as the story progresses.

Love your character

Make sure you love your character. Fall in love with him. Form an emotional bond with her. If you don’t love your character, neither will your readers.

Once you’ve developed this compelling, engaging, intriguing main character, how do you convey that depth and complexity in the writing? That will be a subject for another day. Probably more than one day. Yeah, definitely more than one day.

About this post’s author:  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to a career as a newspaper editor, publisher, and manager, I’ve written fiction most of my life. The newspaper biz has taken my family and me from Phoenix, Arizona, to small towns in North Carolina and Texas, and from seven years in Washington, D.C., to five years in Asia. Born and raised a small-town kid, I’m as comfortable in Tokyo or Tuna, Texas. My first novel, Hannah’s Voice, debuted January 2013, and two more novels are in the works for 2013-14. I also edit fiction and non-fiction books for authors from around the world. It helps that I’m fluent in five languages: U.S. English, U.K. English, Canadian English, and Australian English, plus my native language, Texan. Connect with me via my website, Facebook, Twitter, or Evolved Publishing. I’m also a staff editor for Novel Publicity!

 


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