For people to love your story, they need to love (or love to hate) your character.
The most beautiful writing in the world, the most exciting action sequence in history, neither of these will make people love your story.
But a compelling character will steal their heart, sneak into their memory, and make them come back to your writing over and over again.
Wouldn’t it be great to have raving fans?
How do you make your character compelling without spending too many words tracing their inner thoughts? How do you balance character growth with action?
Step 1: Know Your Character
None of us step out into the world in the morning as a fresh new creation.
We walk out of the door with hang ups and passions and prejudices and ingrained behaviors, all of which come from a lifetime of having experiences and reacting to them.
Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, talks about this brilliantly:
You have to know your character’s childhood damage, she says, and the protective behaviors they created. If you can set your story at a point in their life when those behaviors no longer serve your character, you have automatic conflict built into your story (and conflict makes stuff happen!)
Top Tip: do some ‘discovery writing’ about your character before you ever try to write the actual story. It will make your first draft go soooo much faster.
In our quest to make readers love our protagonist, we can forget to give them flaws.
But how do you give them a flaw, without making them unlikeable?
The best resource I’ve come across came from the podcast Writing Excuses, where they talk about playing with three different characteristics as if they were sliders on a mixing board. Your character can be competent, proactive, and sympathetic, but they can’t be 100% (or 0%) of all three at the same time.
Contractors say, “You have have a job done well, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”
At any one moment in a story, a character can be extremely competent, extremely proactive, or extremely sympathetic. Pick two.
And then play with those levels throughout the story. (Think about how Hermoine Grainger changes over the course of the first Harry Potter book. At the start she is the most competent and proactive of the three friends, but nobody likes her. By the end, she has given up some of that proactivity and learned to lean on her friends. She acknowledges that Ron is more competent at wizard chess, and lets Harry be the one to face the last big challenge…and we like her a lot more, for it.)
Top Tip: Playing with character competencies is a great way to make them more or less sympathetic without having to give them a ‘tragic flaw’.
In critique groups I usually hear two opposing critiques of character, depending on the writer’s natural tendencies:
The writing’s beautiful but it’s a little…slow (translation: nothing happens!!) OR
It was very exciting…but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care (translation: explosions and chases are great, but your character has no inner depth)
Whether you naturally write lots of action, or spend a lot of time dwelling on inner feelings, a good writer needs to be able to balance action and inner conflict, to create compelling characters.
One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the inner dialogue and show your character taking actions or interacting with physical objects that
Are symbolic of their inner struggle
Matter to this character for a specific reason (which you know, and can reveal to the reader)
Remind the reader of the stakes, without you having to spell it out.
For example, in the beginning of the movie Die Hard, a watch-word for action-based storytelling, John McClane picks up a picture of his happy family from a desk in his wife’s office…and winces.
In that moment (right before he gets embroiled in the explosions and flying bullets) the viewer remembers that this is not just a wise-cracking action hero. He’s a man who is losing his family and isn’t sure how far he’s willing to go, to put it back together.
That’s the question the rest of the film answers.
And it’s the reason we, as viewers, care.
Top Tip: Turn off the inner dialogue and give us a moment, filled with all five senses, where your character demonstrates their emotions, on the outside.
Die Hard (watch how the film makers slip in little actions that remind you of the inner journey of the main character, even as the bullets fly)
All of this kind of craft-based instruction is useful for developing your writing…but only if it doesn’t slow you down while you’re creating first drafts.
If you’re writing the first version of a story do not stop to worry about ‘showing not telling’ or whether your character is sufficiently proactive in this moment.
All of this can be fixed in the rewrite.
And one of the best ways to figure out what’s working and what still needs work in your story, is to show it to other readers.
Perhaps the idea of a critique group terrifies you. Or maybe you’ve been in groups in the past that were frustrating, or just ‘meh’.
If that’s you, I have a gift for you: a free guide to critique groups, including:
All the personality types you’ll encounter in a group
How best to interact with each
What you need to know to to give and receive great feedback
Don’t waste time being afraid of feedback, any longer. It’s the single most important thing you can do to get your writing closer to the point where you can really begin to delight readers and build a raving fanbase.
I’ve been stalling on writing this blog post for about two weeks.
Don’t worry, it’s not bad news or anything. I just couldn’t write it.
You know the feeling, right? You want to work on a project, but every time you sit down, something is wrong. You can’t find your way into the story, or you are seized with a sudden urge to research the perfect lamp for your desk…
My Favorite Productivity Hack
To get this post going, I used one of my favorite, sure-fire tricks:
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Writing a short story is a worthy mission. Short stories are fun to write, fast to compose (well, faster than books), and they get published every single day. Here’s a quick guide to help you craft short stories like a pro.
Before we get started, let’s put ourselves in short story mode. Your goal when writing a short story is to deliver a satisfying narrative in a very small package. Short stories aren’t tiny novels. They rarely have any subplots at all. Instead, the action revolves around one main conflict. The theme is revealed through a character and his or her obstacles. Tension keeps the reader invested in the stakes all the way through to the resonant ending.
When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.
Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project: DIY MFA.
This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.
But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.
I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!
Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?
Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.