When a character in a book experiences confusion, it’s an opportunity for them to learn new things. If they are frustrated, they must devise a way around that frustration, and if they are tested to the limits of their endurance, they will become stronger. Keep this in mind when you are writing. Don’t make things too easy for your beloved characters—their struggle is the story.
- How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
- How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
- How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
- What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
- How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?
We want to write compelling characters who react to events in a realistic, natural way. We want the reader to believe it couldn’t have happened any other way, so we need to know WHO our character is on a personal level.
As we write the first draft, traits will emerge that create our characters, and this information is lodged in our mind. We know how and why they react a certain way, and so we write, write, write.
There are problems with this method. Sometimes I read work where the characters all sound and feel the same. When that is the case, it is the author speaking and not the characters. In a great book, the characters speak for themselves.
A good way to avoid that is to create a short history of each character’s life as it was before we met them in the first sentence of the story.
I do this once all the characters have been introduced.
This way, I know what their personalities are like, there is no blurring of reactions and comments. It’s crucial for me to know what will trigger reactions like anger or joy in each different person as these are things that will come into play as the events of the story unfold.
Knowing my characters makes their actions and reactions natural, and believe me, my trusty beta-readers will let me know when I have failed at that.
But there is a caveat to using this method of writing a history for your characters: Any background we write about a character’s life before the moment of the first meeting on the first page of the novel is for our eyes only. For me, this is my “meet and greet” moment, a chance to flesh them out so that when they appear, they are real in their actions and reactions.
The information you compile in this document must be kept off-scene. One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are for you, the author, and are meant to set the character as a human being in your mind.
You know the rules, and don’t want info-dumps in the finished piece. But they slip into your work in insidious ways, so ask yourself if the information you are about to dispense is relevant to the character’s immediate need.
Does that background information advance the story?
- Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
- Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
- Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.
I write stories about people who might have existed, and who have their own views of morality. When writing, my characters stories don’t always follow the outline I had in mind for them. They sometimes go in directions I never planned for them to go, which throws my whole story-arc into disarray until I figure out how this new development fits.
In one of my current works in progress, a rewriting of my first novel, I never intended for my protagonist and a companion to fall in love. They did though, and that took the story in a direction that was a surprise to me back in 2010 when I first wrote it—and I think it’s one of my favorite side-plots. In the rewriting process, I have been able to use that relationship to great advantage.
In each story I write, I try to get into the characters’ heads, to understand why they make the frequently terrible choices that change their lives so profoundly.
In my work, I sometimes stretch the bounds of accepted morality, not for the shock value, but because the story demands it. And when I do this, I need to make sure that each individual character is a separate entity with unique emotional responses. They must be like real people, each one an individual who does NOT react to an event the same way their companions do.
Some people naturally work well under stress, and others don’t. Growth is essential to creating great character arcs. How characters grow and change under these events is the real story. Who they were on the first page should be an unfinished version of the person they are on the last.
My greatest trouble is in keeping the backstory off the page, so by having a file where it is documented, I don’t feel compelled to dump it into my narrative.