Who cares about your characters?

By Roz DeKett

At the Writer’s Digest 2015 Annual Conference in New York City, Talcott Notch Literary Services President and Executive Editor Gina Panettieri spoke about developing compelling characters. Here are my notes from her talk.

You’ve heard it before, right? There are no small parts. And it turns out this applies as much to your book as to the theatre.

Any character in your story should be there for only one reason: to move the plot forward. So make them meaty, have them influence the story.

But the main character, of course, is the protagonist. How do you make your protagonist authentic and compelling, somebody your reader wants to spend time with?

Nobody loves perfect people
Well, there are no perfect people, but we wouldn’t love them if there were. And that applies to your protagonist too. If your reader’s giving up hours and dollars to spend time with your main character, she (or he) must be multi-dimensional. Give her flaws, give her an edge. Characters need depth; they need to be complex. Simple isn’t real. Perfect is boring.

Your protagonist has to be strong
We need to see your protagonist’s personal strength, resolve, faith, loyalty. Not all at once—you can reveal it as you go along. Your protagonist might need some prodding. But he or she has to have an inner core of strength right out of the gate.

As Gina puts it, “Nothing is as unappealing to the reader as a weak character.” `

Your protagonist has to change
We hear this all the time, but it bears repeating. You can have a static character in your story, one who doesn’t change, but it had better not be your protagonist. Gina used Scarlett O’Hara as an example. We see her change from a spoiled child to woman of strength, running a business, managing her family estate, surviving and moving on from every event that threatens to strike her down.

Get your reader behind your protagonist
Encourage your reader’s support with a sympathetic, engaging quest or mission for your protagonist. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing. But something must be at stake that requires change. The “quest” must move the plot forward.

You also have to think about your genre. Are you telling the story from the point of view of the right character? Does it work for your intended market? And (depending on your genre) it doesn’t have to end positively.

It’s not just what’s in their pockets
An author’s character bios—the ones you create for yourself to get to know your character—are often things like what he has for breakfast or what she keeps in her purse.

But you really need to know where your characters came from. What are their addictions, compulsions, and weaknesses? How do they behave in any given situation? What habits and patterns have they formed? (If they go running, why? Do they run to think or to stay fit? Do they go to a gun range? Why?) And if you’re using an object for association, what does it signify about the character?

You can give your reader clues without stating anything. How your characters groom themselves, hold their silverware, how they dress: these are just some of the things that reveal culture, social standing, education, attitude, and more. You don’t have to “tell” the reader.

Don’t give your character a quirk just to be quirky. Connect your characters’ current behaviors with their history. This gives you room for cause and effect, and of course for reflection.

And when you couple your protagonist’s weaknesses with a plot crisis, you’ve established a scenario for creating character growth.

The likeability factor
Finally, although readers do like to fall in love with who they’re reading about, your protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable (let alone perfect!) If your character is a tough one to love, you need to give the reader something very early on, in the first chapter, to keep them reading. You might know Michael Connelly’s fictional homicide detective Harry Bosch. If so, you’ll know he’s taciturn, difficult, short and not exactly handsome, and makes a lot of mistakes in his personal life as well as rubbing just about all his colleagues and especially his bosses the wrong way.

But the reader loves him—even when he’s wrong.

© Roz DeKett

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About rozdekett

Roz DeKett's debut Middle Grade novel is due in 2019 from Hayloft Publishing. She's had short stories in The Nottingham Review (May 2018); Bedford International Writing Competition 2017 (second place); and Fish Anthology 2017, as well as a short memoir piece in the York Literary Review. She's also had non-fiction in the American children's literary magazine Cricket. Roz is a former journalist with a background in newspapers and BBC radio. She divides her time between Wiltshire and London.
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