You are going to write a story. Yes, today is the day you are going to write a fiction story about someone. Your character and their development through the story is the heart of fiction.
Make your characters real, and your readers will care what happens to them because they can identify and sympathize with the character in a situation.
Now let’s work on your character. In this post, we’re going to look at how to write a story by focusing on one of the most important elements of any story: character.
Who are they? And what do they want out of life? Do they want to have a cat sit on top of their head?
Pro and Anti Characters
Let’s review what we talked about in our last post, How To Write a Story 101: Conflict.
The main character, or protagonist, wants something. The protagonist is the person struggling for something, and the antagonist is struggling against something.
Hint: If you can remember the meaning of the prefix it might help you remember what the two words mean: Pro means in favor of. Anti means against.
The Most Convincing Characters Are…
The most convincing characters are those that exhibit behavior we have observed ourselves in people. If your Uncle Harry rubs his forehead every time he gets stressed out, you will recognize the behavior in a fictional character. It is plausible that someone shows anxiety by rubbing their forehead.
It is not plausible that the person’s eyes literally fall out of their head when they are stressed out. (Unless you have created a different world with odd eyeballs.)
The character is selfish though all of the story, not most of the story with a break from pages 129 to 133. Unless the character is evolving into an unselfish person through the development of their character.
By that I mean, your character must be consistent unless you give us a compelling reason that the character is not consistent. You don’t want to confuse your reader.
Why does your character do the things she does? Why does she want what she wants?
Know what your character looks like, where they went to school, their world view. Think of them as three-dimensional. Their name may explain much about their background (e.g. James Rollins the Third or Billy Bob Hopper).
What Is the Function of the Character?
Here are three questions to help you figure out how your character functions within your story:
- What happens to the character? Why?
- Does conflict change the character?
- What are the personality traits, motivations, problems of the character?
How to Introduce a Character
Avoid backstory in the beginning of the story. Instead, incorporate clues about your characters’ history throughout the story and slowly introduce details.
Starting a story with backstory can be boring, and your reader may leave before they find out how cool the rest is.
Here’s an example of a story with a lot of backstory:
James lived with his mother in a small cardboard box. He had brown hair and big ears. When he was six years old he glued his ears back with crazy glue. He collected rocks and liked to eat bugs.
Or you could say:
James combed his hair over the back of his ears to hide the scar. He had trouble opening the door to his room because his rock collection fell and blocked his way.
And later on in your story you can write about him using crazy glue to fix his mother’s broken tea-cup and he has a flashback about his ears.
Show, Don’t Tell; Imply, Don’t State
Show your character being nervous, rather than telling us. Let the reader discover your character. “She is nervous.” How do you think a person who is nervous behaves?
Implying gives the reader a chance to make up their own mind about the person you are introducing.
You could say, “Mary was nervous.” Or you could say, “Mary gently tapped her head against the back of her seat on the bus until the person sitting behind her asked her to stop.”
Please, please, please don’t say, “She was fat.” What does fat look like? Show me fat.
“The buttons on the front of her sweater struggled to keep the fabric together. She sat on two chairs pushed together and she balanced her plate on her stomach.”
Four Types of Fictional Characters
1. Typical. Character represents a group by age, occupation, or ancestry. Such as a typical teacher, or a typical lawyer. The teacher has an apple on her desk and the lawyer plays golf and has a gold front tooth. No, wait, that is a typical rap singer.
2. Unique. The character is unique rather than representative of a certain group. Perhaps the teacher has a pineapple on her desk, and maybe the lawyer likes to play snakes and ladders instead of golf. And maybe the rap singer has a Hello Kitty front tooth.
3. Universal. Share certain characteristics, values and instincts.
4. Allegorical. The main character, or protagonist, is not a person, but a symbol of abstract human traits. Perhaps the protagonist is a tree.
Four Causes of Ineffective Characterization
1. The character is flat, like a pancake
There is not enough personal detail to develop the character. We may know he likes to eat raw eggs, but do we know what he character wants out life? What are his desires? Show me sadness, anger, pain. Let me feel his pain, and I will faithfully follow your story to the end because I care what happens to the person you have created.
2. Telling and not showing keeps me away from your character
When I see your character cry, I am a participant. When you say, “she was sad,” it is as though you, the writer, are in the room watching your character cry, and you are telling me what you see. When you describe your character’s tears and the color of her face, when you describe the sound of her sobbing, and the smell of the rain outside of her window. I am there. I am right in the room with your character.
Don’t get in the room with me. Show me so I can feel her pain.
3. The writer editorializes to tell us how we should feel
“You should feel sad for her. Her dog just died and she left her phone in the bathroom at The Party Supply Store.”
Please let me decide what I think of your character. Don’t tell me what to think or feel.
When the writer overwrites, the story feels phony. “She said, gasping for air, ‘Give me all of your bacon, or I will scream.'”
If your dialogue doesn’t feel plausible, your reader may not believe your story.
The Best Characters Are Believable
To create a genuine emotional effect the reader must understand, identify, and sympathize with the character in a situation.
Make your characters real, and your readers will care what happens to them.
To be real, the character will smell, hear, touch, see and sense the world around them. Make me care for the woman who has a cat on her head.
Now, show me.
What advice do you have about writing characters? Let us know in the comments section!
Spend a few minutes thinking about your character. What does your character look like? What are they feeling? After you decide, write for fifteen minutes showing me an aspect of your character.
Please, no telling words—like skinny, fat, sad, happy, angry. Show me angry. Show me sad. Show me skinny. How will you describe your character?
Oh, and then we can comment about what we see in your character. This will be fun. What details can we pick up by your subtle clues!
When you are finished, please post your practice in the comments section. I look forward to meeting the people you create. And please read and comment on another story.