Artful storytelling starts with character.
Character is the linch-pin into every element of story, the reason readers come to the writing and stay interested. The most successful characters can become larger-than life and even outgrow the stories they spring from. Characterization is – or should be – inextricably bound to all other story elements, the vehicle through which the reader rides into your story. Skillfully depicted characters can be the driving force of plot, theme, mood, setting and story. When you know your characters well and breathe life into them, they can – and should – help drive your story.
A way with words is valuable for a writer. Being adept at creating memorable characters is invaluable.
Powerful dialogue will be turgid with meaning and even subtext and is generally devoid of exposition. While it's good to have your characters engaging and acting while speaking, they need not be speaking about what they are doing. The dialogue should be able to stand alone.
Each of your characters should speak with their own distinct voice. A good way to test if you have achieved this is to remove the dialogue tags from your writing and see if your reader can still tell who is speaking.
As you review your writing, it’s a good idea to always read your dialogue aloud, the way it’s meant to be heard.
Good characters make choices and decisions. They may be good or bad choices, right or wrong decisions but they need agency. It is always better for characters to be pro-active than just reactive. Things may happen to your character - but make sure that your character also makes things happen.
When your character is faced with a dilemma that demands a decision, whether it be big or small, they need to act on it. Great characters, whether they achieve their goals or not, are generally the drivers of their destiny and this is most deftly done through showing their decision-making and their acting upon these decisions. And dilemmas or decisions present the opportunity to portray your characters acting on their instincts or desires and this drives the story forward and establishes both story momentum and reader interest.
Just as the major and minor tribulations of life are not always so easily navigated, neither should your characters journey be clearly sign-posted. They should struggle, whether internally or externally, to achieve the outcome they desire or overcome the one they don’t.
When you build up the dilemmas and decisions and then have your character act, you build up the momentum of your writing and this is the basic principle of both scene and story structure.
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Once you know the story you want to tell, it’s time to decide who’s going to tell it for you: your character.
While the character in your book may be yourself, your creation based on yourself or other people you have known or even famous or imained people you have never known – and combination of factors – but these characters come to life based on how well you know them.
Whatever the basis of your character, they need personality, character traits, unique dialogue and, ideally, some hard-to-reach goal, ideal or transformation.
You can not confront your charater’s belief system or confound his goals until you are intimately familiar with them. Take your character on a journey and you take the reader on a journey with him/her.
Essential questions to ask and answer about your characters:
GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS BOTH INTERNAL & EXTERNAL CONFLICTS
To take your characters to the next level, you need to know not only their external conflict, goals and desires but also explore their inner conflict. Life should not be any easier for your characters than it is for real people. Characters should be as much like real people as possible, they may not always know what they want, exactly why they want it or just how they should go about getting it but their must be a story with an insight as to how they try, whether they succeed or fail. As with people, characters may not just want one thing. They may want many different things in addition or may even want things that stand in direct opposition. They may wish to be loved but not to settle down, may wish to be wealthy but not wish to work excessively or compromise the other aspects of life that this goal may demand.
Great stories are usually carried by conflicted characters, characters who give the reader an interest in what they have at stake to win or lose, to attempt to achieve or fail. With well-crafted three-dimensional characters these stakes may be large or small but they must be there to drive the story and captivate the reader.
When you put your characters in a story with external conflict and also imbue them with internal conflict you add depth to the drama. Compelling characters are those faced with difficult dilemmas and tough choices. People relate to such challenges because life offers them up continually – as should the writer do when crafting characters.
Masterfully written dialogue can do much of the heavy-lifting in any great story. Writing well-crafted dialogue is one of the most valuable tools in the writer’s arsenal and can help the writer overcome many other shortfalls or shortcomings. If the dialogue in your story is stilted, the story is stifled. The ability to write good dialogue is like the Swiss Army Knife of the writer’s toolbox.
Dialogue needs to reveal character and help tell the story and move the plot forward.
Many writers struggle to make dialogue realistic, which often comes at the price of inhibiting story progression, or worse, even boring the reader. Good dialogue writing needs to sparkle and sing off the page – it needs to toe the line between being both believable AND yet better than real-life dialogue. Great dialogue needs to sound credible without being boring. Study people’s speech patterns as you converse and you’ll note halting speech patterns and meaningless tangents. Dialogue needs to be power-packed, poignant and compelling. Leave the boring bits and the tangents out but devote time to crafting dialogue so that it does much of the storytelling for your narrative. The best dialogue writing leaves out the boring parts, it’s parsed down only into the most interesting and vital elements that give your scenes pace – and help propel your characters, scenes and story forward while holding reader interest.
DIALOGUE WRITING EXERCISE: Practice writing entire scenes with only dialogue in order to improve and perfect your ability to write strong and compelling character dialogue.
As you move toward your final editing stage, another good way to improve your dialogue-heavy scenes is to keep a separate file exclusively for each main characters dialogue and work on making sure that you give them distinct voices and speech patterns.
When you know your characters and your story, you have the necessary essential ingredients to put your characters into some kind of conflict, The conflict can be large or small, the goal or desire of minimal or maximal magnitude but there must be something that your characters care deeply about in order for the reader to feel deeply about them. Great characters are conflicted characters and the building blocks of these conflicts can be life-shattering or trivial as long as they are there.
In life, most people want to avoid conflict, but most fiction revolves around friction, whether internal or external, these conflicts and conundrums need to be there to drive your character’s journey.
Vivid characters are three-dimensional, they have depth and movement that should come alive in the story if you wish to captivate the reader. Give your characters agency, show them making decisions, doing things. Explore their motivations, what drives their desires and decisions? Why do they want these things?
Give them action, it can be big or little but it must be three-dimensional, rich in depth, texture and, ideally, movement toward or away from something. Give them agency, show them making decisions, doing things. Explore both their outwardly-expressed and internal motivations. Show how much and why they want these things. Explore why they are compelled to keep at it. In short, know what makes them tick, even if you do not reveal it all to the reader.
Give them depth by giving them connections, whether these are with places, things, other characters, their own past or their dreamed-of future.
Character-building writing exercise: Sit in a public place and closely watch other people. Observe their behavior, appearance and body language, their actions as well as their speech. Then write down the descriptive character adjectives that come to mind. Are they polite. belligerent, rude, angry, pensive, loving, aggressive, meek, funny, somber? Then write down the specific details and/or actions that led you to these conclusions.