[Stacey Ballis (Good Enough to Eat, The Spinster Sisters, Room for Improvement, the rest in Bibliography) is known for her strong, believable characters — including a character strong and realistic enough to change a reader’s life (see Fan Mail: An Author’s Most Memorable Reward, II). In today’s guest post, the author details the questions she asks when creating those true-to-life characters.]
As an author, I never get tired of hearing from my readers…those little e-mails or tweets or comments on my blog or good reviews on Amazon are what keep me going when I am sitting alone in front of the computer with a nap tempting me. But as much as I love the notes that tell me a story was interesting or a theme was relevant, the things that makes my heart beat faster are the ones that say that the characters were REAL.
As a reader, I cannot fully engage with characters unless they feel real to me. Even in fantasy or science fiction stories, the humanity has to ring true. I can absolutely believe that Thursday Next can pop in and out of works of fiction and engage with the characters in famous books, as long as she continues to struggle with her relationship with her mother and worries about her marriage. When I start a book, the main character is always the first place I begin. Forget “story”, plot, for me, comes later. I want to know who she is, where did she come from, what is the world she lives in, and then the story can begin to take shape.
There are a lot of elements to making a character ring true for your readers. Some of it is ephemeral and unknowable, the essence of the writer’s art and inspiration. But much of it is craft. When you are working with a character, some things should always be in your mind…
What is their voice? This is everything from the cadence of their speech in dialogue, to the way they think, to the way they respond to the inevitable conflicts of the book. It is essential that this be consistent throughout, and depending on the world of the book, be as realistic as possible. Especially in dialogue. Would you hear someone use those words in that order in the world of that character? Would your twenty-something working girl in 2010 really say “I simply cannot begin to fathom such a thing.” Or would she say “Seriously? Simply. Not. Possible. No way.”
What are their flaws? All humans have flaws. Sometimes they are small quirks that are endearing; sometimes they are major personal demons that negatively impact our relationships with everyone around us. If your character doesn’t have enough flaws, they won’t feel real, they will feel too perfect. Your characters should occasionally say or do something you as a writer or reader wish they wouldn’t. They should make mistakes, sometimes big ones. They should self-doubt, self-delude, and self-destruct. They should push away the people they need most, and embrace the people who are toxic. They should stay when they should leave, and leave when they should stay. Because we all do. We all fail and flounder and choose the wrong path, and if we don’t, we are unendurably dull.
What do they learn? Your book doesn’t need to have some big “moral of the story”, but your characters should learn something or grow in some way during the course of the book. We are learning and growing every day in our lives and it is this forward momentum that is part and parcel of our journey as people. If your character is exactly the same on the last page as on the first, they have gone nowhere as people and they won’t feel nearly as human as they should.
What is their baggage? Often writers take so much time figuring out what a character’s present looks like that they forget that this person was not just hatched into the world full-fledged. Knowing where your characters come from, how they were raised, what their heartbreaks and successes and loves and losses looked like will inform how they engage with their current reality. Your reader might not understand why your heroine would turn down the date with the dashing lawyer unless they have been made aware of her alcoholic lawyer uncle who was always so mean to her poor dad. We all have a past, your characters need one too.
At the end of the day, you will be the best judge of how successful you are in making your characters ring true. Sometimes it can be as easy as having them make a mistake, or share a story from their past. Sometimes it will be as complex as fleshing out an addiction or a dysfunctional relationship. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your characters need to perfect to be likable. In fact, often the opposite is true. The characters from my books that get the most reaction and empathy from my readers are the ones who are flawed but still sympathetic.
Sydney, the heroine of my first book INAPPROPRIATE MEN engages in an affair with a married man, while she herself is still married. In SLEEPING OVER, a character breaks up with her boyfriend after she suffers a miscarriage…pushing away the one person who is trying to take care of her. My third book, ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT explores what happens when professional success negatively impacts your personal life, and Lily, the heroine, alienates not only her best friends, but her colleagues and potential lovers as well. In THE SPINSTER SISTERS, keeping her feelings bottled up is Jodi’s downfall, in spite of the fact that she is a self-help guru, we see her consistently behaving in ways she counsels people not to behave. And in my new book, GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT, Mel, who has worked very hard to lose half her body weight, nevertheless continues to let stress push her to binge eat, and she forgets to be patient and forgiving with the people in her life.
I love a good plot as much as the next girl, and I always hope that the stories I tell are interesting in and of themselves. But mostly, I hope that the people who live in my head and reveal themselves on my pages move into your life in a way that makes you truly believe that they could, simply, exist.
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Karen McQuestion’s A Scattered Life in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post Karen McQuestion and A Scattered Life. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.