I don’t know about you, but my characters always seem fully formed in my head, so it’s a surprise to find that perhaps they don’t always come out the way I intended. A few weeks ago I attended a writing workshop hosted by Brian Henry. Brian is a champion of writers. An editor and instructor, he runs a series of workshops and critique groups and his blog, Quick Brown Fox is a great writing resource! The writing great characters workshop was a full day of tips, writing exercises and a session by guest speaker, Author, Jean Rae Baxter.
Here are the key takeaways Brian and Jean offered around the five main traits that make for great characters:
1. Consistent – this doesn’t mean always doing the same thing. There should be changes in your characters that are motivated by things that happen, but they should be consistent with the personality you’ve created for your character. Ask yourself all the time, what’s at the root of your character’s character – would she say this, feel this?
2. Motivated – this one is over simplified. Your character wants something because….but there is a problem, so they react, they do things. What does your character want most, what does she fear most? Keep putting your character into trouble, throw things at her, test her. It’s these things within the story, the motivation behind your characters that make them relatable. How they are reacting to the challenges they face should motivate them to grow and change.
3. Lifelike – your characters need to seem real. Make sure you know more about your character than you’re ever going to use. Who they are inside. What’s happened to them, what’s their history? What are their thoughts and reactions? What does your character think of herself?
4. Interesting – if your characters aren’t interesting, why would anyone want to read about them. What’s wrong with them, where have they screwed up. And this one line resonated with me – what’s the hole in their soul?
5. Identifiable – we need to emotionally identify with your characters – their fantasies, fears, nightmares.
A few further tips: there’s a term in psychology around a person’s ‘affect’. How do they display their personality through gestures, facial expressions, verbal expressions, posture, jewelry, tattoos, glasses, hair style, phone – well you get it.
Author Jean Rae Baxter reinforced these points when she reminded us every great book has a memorable character. She talked about that moment when your character comes to life is one of the most exciting moments as a writer, that your character becomes so alive she starts to tell you what happens.
She shared part of her process when she sits down to write: in each scene, decide on the things you’ll reveal about your character.
Thanks to Brian and Jean for sharing writing tips we can apply to our characters so that the next time, the way they’re fully formed in our head, will come out on paper!