Building Believable Characters For Your Novel
by Linore Rose Burkard
Author Joanne Reid once said, "One of the leading causes of rejection by a publisher is poorly developed, one-sided characters." If you've been reading fiction for any length of time you're probably inclined to agree. Characters can make or break a story. But is there a key to creating characters that aren't one-sided? A method to avoid writing poorly developed ones?
I believe there is.
Experts agree that believable, well-rounded characters share basic building blocks that any writer can use. Some may seem obvious, but even published authors can fail to include one or more of these features.
1. Individualized Appearance. From hair color to style of clothing; posture, facial expression, body language--it all counts to distinguish your character and set him or her apart from the crowd. I recently read a book that was enjoyable but by the last page, I still couldn't tell you what the heroine really looked like. I had a great sense of who she was and how she behaved. But I wasn't sure of her hair color. Don't make this mistake. Keep description short (unless you have a thematic reason for emphasizing it), but be specific, and include all the basics. What are basics? Ethnicity, hair and eye color, stature (tall, short, average), etc. Don't describe each and every attribute, but refer to one or more as an unobtrusive way to convey information.
Example: His six-foot-two height made Sheri, never considered tall, feel like a dwarf. And she didn't like it.
From this we learn that Sheri isn't tall, and doesn't like being reminded of it, but we conveyed the information in an interesting manner.
2. A Solid Background
Main characters need a history that is specific to them. Most or all of this history may not ever need to appear in the book, but if you are going to write the character as well-rounded, you'll need to know it. Many authors find they rely heavily on the past history of their characters as they write, often creating plot details that work only BECAUSE of that history. Nearly all of Jane Austen's novels employ this type of plot-device in at least one character, and usually more than one. She carefully hides certain details from a person's past until the time comes for a big surprise to the other characters and the reader--at which point the detail/s is/are revealed (discovered), everything makes perfect sense, and the story can end satisfactorily.
In my first novel, Before the Season Ends, the hero is immune, he thinks, to female charms. His behavior reflects this disinterest, is speculated upon and misunderstood; finally, near the end of the story his past is brought to light by a close relative. Suddenly, all that he is falls into place. His actions make sense, and this is no small thing: Never forget that the reader desperately wants your story to make sense. It gives a feeling of completeness to the book, a satisfaction that mustn't be underestimated. Your characters don't have to be likeable or loveable--but they must make sense by the last page. Even if they are comprehensible to no one but themselves (and the reader), they must at least be that.
3: Emotion (or Motive)
We touched upon this by noting that good characters must make sense. Their actions must align with their beliefs; or, if they don't, there has to be a good reason why not. In other words, MOTIVE and EMOTIONS are everything. Real people have a MOTIVE for what they do, and most of the time, those motives are fueled by emotions.
Fictional characters need to operate the same way. Many plots hinge on the emotions or motives of characters; by making a character do or say things he or she doesn't really believe or want to do or say. That's what CONFLICT is all about. A character at odds with himself, his surroundings, his family, his GOD--any or all of these are conflicts that can shape a story. But to make the conflict work, the character has to reveal WHY it's a conflict. This means showing his or her emotions, even if only in his or her thoughts. So, figure out what your character feels or believes and then use it
to increase conflict or forward the plot.
I can't fit more into a blog post, but I hope these ideas help you in your writing!
***Linore Rose Burkard is an award-winning author of "Inspirational Romance to Warm the Soul". Ms. Burkard's novels include Before the Seasons Ends, The House in Grosvenor Square, and The Country House Courtship. Her stories blend Christian faith and romance with well-researched details of the Regency. When not writing novels, Ms. Burkard gives writing workshops, does freelance editing, and publishes a monthly ezine, available by signing up for free at her website. Linore was raised in NY, but now lives in Ohio with her husband and five children. The Burkards are involved in church, and love swimming, movies and family game nights.
You can find Linore's books here.
Thanks, Linore. I found your post both enjoyable and educational. I'm sure others will, too. And thanks to my visitors. We love your comments.
Hope to see you back next Wednesday when author Dani Pettrey joins us with a recipe for fiction.