What I’ve Learned: Story Elements I – Character

What I've Learned, Writing

I'm going to do a blog series on story elements beginning today with Character. Please feel free to comment, add anything you think I may have missed and make any suggestions you think might be worthwhile for others to hear!

Character

In today's modern novel, it's not farfetched to say that character is king. Readers want to connect with characters, sympathize with them, especially your protagonist. To catch your reader and, more importantly, keep her, you must make her care about your characters. If we don't care, we won't read on.

Characters provide a moral compass for your story. Your protagonist (the character whom your story is about) is the anchor which keeps your tale on track, the lens through which you're showing the reader your story. Your reader wants to see all sorts of terrible things happen to him but, in most cases (but not all), wants him to prevail in the end.
So how do you make your readers care?
Make your characters believable and sympathetic.

Making characters believable

Know thy character. The more you know about your character, the easier it is to make him believable. Of course, you need to know the basics about him: body type, hair color, eye color, occupation, family, etc. But don't stop there! What hobbies does he have? What does he do when he gets angry? Does he stop for directions when he's lost? What charities does he donate money to? What's his dream car/job/vacation? What's his biggest regret in life? His biggest joy? What were the circumstances of his first kiss? Does he wish he had a brother/sister/none at all?
Know your character's strengths and weaknesses, know what he wants and know what's preventing him from getting it (this goes a wee bit more to plot, but it's applicable here as well). Know what motivates him and know which character traits he has which will keep him from his goal. Give him a secret.

As you're fleshing out your character, you should understand that most of what you figure out about him, your reader will never know. But your reader will know that you know, because you will understand your character enough to know how he will react in each situation he enters. And it will be believable.

Making characters sympathetic

First, I should say, characters don't always have to be sympathetic. There are certainly genres which have unsympathetic characters as main characters. However, in order for your reader to connect with your character, to want to root for him, to care about what happens to him, she has to be able to relate to him in some way.

There are universal situations in life that most of us go through at some point: the awkwardness of adolescence, dating, loss of a loved one, learning how to drive, good relationships, bad relationships, our first traffic ticket or car accident, moving out on our own, college life, work promotions, getting fired/laid off, renting an apartment or buying a house. While you don't have to include these situations in your story (unless they are important to the plot), they flesh out your character and they can be alluded to in your manuscript. They make your character more real, more human. And that, in turn, makes readers more sympathetic.

Before closing, I also want to point out that your protagonist–the character your reader is rooting for–does not have to be your point of view character. Probably one of the more famous examples is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Tales of Sherlock Holmes. The point of view character is Dr. Watson, while the protagonist is, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Don't be afraid to play with point of view this way. Sometimes an outside voice can make the reader appreciate and care for the protagonist more.
Please let me know if you found this post useful. The next Story Elements installment will be Situation.
Best of luck with the writing!

 


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