Deep Dive into Your Characters
I’ve been reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron lately, which has gotten me thinking a lot about character and the importance of character in storytelling. Well duh, you might be thinking. And yes, it seems obvious that character is important, but a lot of times in manuscripts I edit, character is forgotten in lieu of plot. Plot is definitely important, but Cron says that plot is secondary to character. Let me tell you guys, she is so right.
So where do we go wrong in stories that have beautiful prose and action-packed scenes and huge plots twists? Well, oftentimes we can trace story problems back to character. Because the truth is, if things are happening to your character instead of your character making things happen, then you’ve got a problem on your hands.
The following tips for deep diving into your character apply to all writers, though discovery writers might not find these tips helpful until after you’ve started writing your novel. The thing about discovery writing is, you have to be prepared to do a lot of rewriting when the novel is finished to be able to insert the subtle details, backstory, and foreshadowing that plotters can do from the get go.
So listen, this isn’t going to be a post about your main character’s favorite coffee order or favorite color or what famous person she’d choose to meet if she could. I’m not saying knowing that kind of information is bad, but it’s not the type of deep dive we’re going on today.
Below, I’m going to list four simple (well, maybe not simple) things you should know about your characters before you ever begin writing your novel. These four tidbits of information will help drive your story so that your character is the one moving the plot forward and not the other way around. Please note, these are for your main character, but that doesn’t mean your side characters and antagonists shouldn’t be this fully developed as well. Remember, every character in your book thinks they are the hero of the story.
Character Wants (or goals)
Aaaand you’re welcome for that Ryan Gosling gif. So first and foremost, you need to know what your character wants. The want is what drives the story forward. A character is going to have different wants throughout a novel, and that’s okay. Oftentimes, in your first chapter, what the character wants is different than what she’s going to want when the inciting incident happens.
Take The Hunger Games for example. In the first chapter, it’s easy to see that Katniss wants to feed and protect her family. She wants to take care of them. That want never changes. Then, the inciting incident happens: Katniss volunteers for the hunger games to save her sister. Katniss’s new want is to survive the hunger games, but she never stops wanting to protect and take care of her family. She’s badass like that and can basically do it all.
Whereas, in Outlander, Claire starts off the novel wanting to reconnect with her estranged husband who she hasn’t seen in years because of a war. She wants to have a normal life and marriage with him. But once the inciting incident happens, Claire’s wants change. She’s suddenly been transported back in time in Scotland, and she just wants to get home. As the novel progresses, though, Claire’s wants change entirely which creates conflict. By the end of the novel, she doesn’t want the same thing she wanted in the beginning at all. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from her mind.
It’s okay for your character’s wants to change or to stay the same; just make what your character wants in the beginning and what she wants after the inciting incident connect or collide in some way.
Okay. Yes, a woman has needs, but so do characters. Wants and needs are two different things. The character may want many things, but what does the character actually need? A lot of times, you can use these two things to create conflict. Many times what the character wants and needs are opposites (but sometimes they’re not). So think about what your character really needs and use that as part of their arc.
For example, in The Hate U Give, Starr wants to stay out of the spotlight after witnessing her friend get killed by the police. She doesn’t want anyone to know she’s a witness or that she was involved in any way. Really, she wants things to go back to normal. But what does she need? Well, she needs to learn to stand up for what she believes in and to stand up for herself. Her differing want and need create huge conflict throughout the novel.
Before the novel started, your characters had entire lives happening. Moment upon moment built up like blocks and turned your character into who she is when the novel starts. I’m not saying you need to know every single one of these moments, but you needs to know the important ones. You need to know what happened to your characters to make them want what they do and need what they do. What pivotal moments in their lives shaped how they view the world?
Sometimes, this backstory is something that will be revealed to the reader, and sometimes, it’s just for you. Either way, you need to know the most important moments that happened in your characters’ lives and how it shaped them into the person they are when the novel begins. And it’s important to use detail. Don’t be vague in these pivotal moments. If a character was abused by her husband so she has a deep distrust of men, you need to go a bit deeper. You need to dive into one of those horrific, horrible episodes to understand how it impacted your character’s thoughts, actions, and reactions. Don’t be afraid to write a few pages trying to hammer down those really important moments.
Oftentimes, this backstory can answer the question of Why? Why does your character want this? Why does your character need this? The backstory can provide that support.
Everyone has baggage and your characters should be no different. When I’m talking about baggage, I’m talking about a few different things: what your character is ashamed of, what your character’s flaws are, what your character’s deepest, darkest secrets are. This baggage is what’s going to make your character relatable. Oftentimes, the more we dig into our characters’ backstories, the more we begin to understand what this baggage is and how it’s going to change the main character throughout the course of the novel.
Okay, now I’m handing it over to you. Time to dig into your characters and draw out their most important aspects to create a richer novel. After reading this blog post, take some time to journal about your characters and the four things above. You’ll be surprised how this deep dive can reveal things you didn’t even know. If you’ve already written your story, it’s time to go back and add in a few subtle hints about the above or even rewrite a few scenes based on the new information you learn about your character. If you haven’t started writing your novel yet, then you’re at the perfect place to discover your characters in a whole new way.
Lastly, if you haven’t read Story Genius, I can’t recommend it enough. It is a great book on craft and creating a story readers won’t want to put down.