Whether you write short stories or novels, having fully rounded, believable characters always complements a strong story and therefore makes the experience of reading the story more enjoyable.
The one thing that can let a story down is clichéd, wooden characters that have little depth. This often happens with first time writers who have not yet learned how to characterise, and often their first creations tend to fall flat.
Another reason why characters might be somewhat like cardboard is the lack of attention to full characterisation. This is where writers tend to neglect characters for a plot driven story. In other words, the story is great but the characters are thinly sketched.
All primary characters need to be fully realised and, above all, believable, regardless of plot driven or character driven stories. That means they have to relate to the reader like a real living, breathing person. In effect, they have to leap from the page.
Every writer should aim to make their characters so real that the reader can’t help by but care about what happens to them.
How do you spot cardboard characters?
Clichéd characters can make the narrative boring and uninspiring. So, at the read through stage of editing the first draft, the writer should be looking for signs that the characters are flat and two dimensional, rather than multidimensional, lifelike and memorable enough to leap from the page.
Have you described the character? Surprisingly, many writers forget or ignore description of their main characters. This can leave a gap in the reader’s mind – they have to formulate a picture in their mind of what the character looks like, the kind of person he or she is. The description doesn’t have to be detailed; it can be subtle, or hinted at, just enough for the reader to formulate a picture.
Is the POV from their perspective? Do they see things through their eyes? Main characters will have thoughts and feelings, just like real people, so a lack of internal thoughts or feelings projected into the narrative will make the character appear unexciting and emotionless. Bringing the reader into the thoughts of your main character(s) will help them get closer to them.
Do they interact well with other characters? Dialogue plays an important role with characters – what they say and who they converse with says a lot about them. If your character talks in monosyllabic, short sentences, the reader might assume your character is badly drawn and rather simple, and probably won’t care too much about them because you haven’t given the character enough depth.
If you give your character something meaningful to say, however, coupled with dynamic dialogue, then of course your reader will find the character interesting, and they will relate to them, and that means they are likely to care about the character.
Actions perform an important function where characters are concerned because what they do and how they do it can say so much about them; their actions and reactions will be scrutinised and interpreted by the reader.
In real life, what we do and how we do it says a lot about our personalities, and the same is true for our fictional characters. Their actions are performed directly because of their personality traits – we all have faults, foibles and quirks. Make sure your characters do, too.
Do they show emotion? This is an obvious question, and it’s also related to actions and reactions, but it’s important that your character shows his or her emotional side to situations and other characters within the story because the reader will empathise with the character. This will make the characters more believable, and will certainly make the reader care about them.
Empathy creates immediacy, and in turn that allows the reader to emotionally invest in the character.
Is their personality apparent? In other words, what qualities set them apart from other characters in the story? Do they have a habit of any kind, such as a dependency on smoking or drinking, or do they have a nervous tick? Do they subconsciously play with their hair? Do they always dust away invisible crumbs from their clothes? Are they fastidious about their appearance? Are they quick to temper, or are they shy and introvert?
In real life these traits are what layer people’s personalities and make them multidimensional. It should be no different for your characters. These traits should be apparent in your main characters. If they don’t exist, then you’ll soon notice why your characters appear flat and uninteresting.
How do you correct the problem?
Pay attention at the editing stage and find out if your characters come across as wooden, clichéd, flat or just plain boring because they don’t have anything interesting to say. Correct this by injecting some realism into them – remember that characters need to be as close to real life as you can make them.
Give your characters personality, thoughts, feelings and emotions and faults. Describe their appearance. Make their actions stand out, make their dialogue dynamic, make them larger than life.
Make them memorable.
The idea is to make the reader care, empathise and interested in your characters, and more importantly, be interested what they have to say.
Once you start layering your characters this way, and correcting their limitations, by the next draft they will really start to emerge.
Next week: Novels and short stories – is there a difference?