Tip 5: How to craft loveable characters

The fifth post in my #52WritingTips project, because there’s 52 weeks in a year and I really need to get better at updating this blog. Across the year, I’ll be pulling together 52 writing tips to help you get your dream on paper, edit that manuscript or summon the courage to submit your work. I’ll then be chatting it through on my podcast, 52 Writing Tips.

Last week we looked at how to find your writing stride, how to figure out what kind of a writer you are and how to capitalise on it. This week we’re talking characters and three simple ways to make your characters more loveable.

Think about your favourite book(s). What is it you love about them? Is it the way the author paints the settings? Is it how they space out their dialogue? Possibly… but chances are what you love about a book, what you fell in love with was a character (or characters).

Think about Frodo from Lord of the Rings, or Neo from The Matrix, or Winnie from Winnie the Pooh. If you write a character that’s loveable, readers are going to be churning through the pages in their eagerness to find out what happens to them next.

But writing amazing characters straight off the bat is hard -and I know, because I’ve struggled with it.

I write historical fiction, which means my books tend to be led by events. Drop a character from your imagination into a historical setting and you might find they become a puppet (at least I did) being led from Event A to Event B by the inevitable tide of history, rather than what should be progressing them through they story: their own decisions and, most importantly, their own mistakes.

Characterisation is something I have been working really hard on in the last year (to varying degrees of success I would say) and it’s something I’ll continue to try and learn more about.

For now, let me share 3 things that might help you if you, like me, are struggling to make your characters leap from the page.

What is a round character (and why should you care?)

You might hear people (writers) bandying this term around quite a bit. But what exactly is a round character? And why should you care?

A round character is usually presented in contrast with a flat character – because a round character has so much more than a flat character does. In general, you can think of a round character as one with a lot of development. Someone you’ve spent a lot of time getting to know, someone with hopes and dreams, secrets and desires. A flat character, on the otherhand, tends to be a background character. They might have a goal, (e.g. “get home on time”) but they tend to act as plot devices. Their job is to help or hinder you rounded characters as they fight their way through the plot.

I think a good description for a rounded character is “opaque” – which is something Eleanor Wood coined. Sometimes we’re not sure why the character reacts to something in a certain way. This is something I love seeing in books and television shows, because it makes you, as a reader go, ‘ooo something’s happened there to make them overreact like that. I wonder what.’

Now do you know why we love that moment as readers? (At least I’m hoping it’s not just me): it’s because it hints at their backstory. Their ghost, the thing that haunts them. Their lie, the thing they’ve invented to cover it up or protect themselves. And it hints at the kind of self-realisation or development they’re gunna need in order to overcome it.

Now obviously this example isn’t a masterpiece in written form however what it’s showing is that having a barrier between your characters in the guise of small talk can actually tell the reader a whole lot about them, their relationship and what might’ve happened to it.

Think about dialogue as being something you can fill with juicy tidbits for your readers: even when your characters are talking, it should be pulling double time in characterisation as well as moving the plot forwards. If your characters need to have a straightforward conversation, think about ways you can make it interesting. If Sally is approaching Kim about her wanting to have kids, how does it impact the tension if the conversation is about what to have for dinner instead? Symbolism is a powerful, powerful tool in our dialogue, and we should use it.

When they’re in jeopardy, you’re in jeopardy…you empathize with them

John Yorke, Into the Woods

Discovering your character’s past

In order to get a great headstart on crafting a rounded character, you need to delve into their past.

You need to identify their wound, the thing that hurt them, the thing that shaped who they are today.

You need to identify their lie, the thing they told themselves after said wound. This colours their world, colours how they react to people, colours their relationships.

You need to idenfity their need: the thing that will make them happy and their want, the thing that gets in the way.

If you don’t know what these things are, then look within yourself. Whenever we as humans suffer a trauma, or a wound, we tend to pick ourselves up, brush our knees down and move on. We also tend to carry little pieces of that trauma with us for quite a while. And we tend to cover that up by lying to ourselves.

An example of a wound, a lie, a want, a need and a truth:

Let’s think back to week one where I started toying with the idea of a woman, Rosie, who discovers a secret upon her wife Jane’s death that threatens to unravel everything she thought she knew.

Now let’s try and build up Rosie’s character around this idea:

Rosie’s wound could be something about being lied to, or being deceived. This means that the threat of deceit (or actual deceit, who knows, I’m yet to write it) of what she finds in the locked drawer would be doubly triggering for her as it would re-open these old wounds.

So then you work back, thinking of what sorts of things (involving deceit/deception) could Rosie have been subjected to? Perhaps she was abandoned at a shopping mall by a mother who promised she’d return, and never did? Perhaps she was cheated on by the first person she fell in love with? Think of the event, think of how it happened. Does she now shudder anytime she’s forced to go to a shopping mall?

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Rosie’s lie therefore might be that you shouldn’t trust people, they’ll only end up lying to you. So when she discovers the locked drawer, when she sees that Jane has been hiding something from her all these long years she feels justified in her lie.

Unbeknowst to your character however, the lie that she thinks is protecting her is actually harming her in a multitude of ways. Her lack of trust in others deprives her of the kind of connection she craves, the kind of security that deep down she needs.

Rosie’s want may be to get to the bottom of whatever she finds in the drawer. She wants to trace the clues back and find out, once and for all, if her relationship with Jane was meaningful or not.

But this isn’t what Rosie needs. If Rosie was your friend and not an imaginary cluster of words, you wouldn’t be telling her to follow the clues into madness, you’d be telling her to let it go, to try and forgive Jane, to move on with her life and to heal. The character’s lie and what they want should harm them: their subconscious need and their truth is what heals them.

Rosie needs to realise that she will never feel secure if she does not trust people. Her pursuit of her want is in aid of justifying her lie: she wants proof that she was right all along. What Rosie needs is to realise that unless you trust people you will never have a complete relationship with them. She didn’t trust Jane, just like Jane didn’t trust her. This would be a great opportunity to think of an ally character, someone Rosie could learn to trust over the course of the book.

Rosie’s truth, therefore, might be something like: trusting someone makes you vulnerable, and that’s okay. She has to learn, over the course of the book, that if she doesn’t make a change she may be alone forever.

These are the building blocks for your character, these are where you should start when you begin sketching out your rounded characters. If your character is feeling flat (or worse, if your beta readers think they feel flat) then try and find their wound, like, want, need and truth. Chances are in the process of doing that exploration, you’ll start to open up whole new facets of your character!

Your character should act in surprising ways – but they need to be consistent. A character that spurns love shouldn’t suddenly decide to settle down and get married without the reader seeing this change happen gradually.

The difference between ‘surprising’ and ‘inconsistent’

Now, earlier I said that your character should surprise the reader – and they should! Your character should act in surprising ways – but they need to be consistent.

A character that spurns love shouldn’t suddenly decide to settle down and get married without the reader seeing this change happen gradually.

A selfless character shouldn’t suddenly shun their friends and claw their way to the top of the corporate ladder unless there’s a reason for it.

What happens when a character does something that’s completely ‘out of character’ for them is that the reader takes a step back from your writing and goes: hold on a minute. They wouldn’t do that. And when the reader does that? When they’ve started peering behind the words, looking to you, the author and going “what the heck?”

Well, needless to say that’s not good, and it’s not what we want to encourage in our writing, either.

If you’re going to have your characters behave inconsistently, you’re going to need to give them a good reason for it. Let’s take Frodo Baggins as an example, as hopefully you already know him. Now Frodo is obviously brave, as he volunteered to take the ring to Mordor. He’s also selfless, because he was willing to continue alone rather than risk his friends. When Frodo starts acting against these character traits: when he acts selfishly, or out of character (such as being reluctant to throw the ring into the lava pit) we can rationalise it: Frodo has the ring, the ring is corrupting him, thus it’s making him act out of character. We accept it (and worry about him) because we’ve been given a good reason for it.

Write what you know: how real people help us craft beautiful characters

Think about someone close to you. Now think about their quirks. What little things do they do that drive you mad? That make you laugh? That makes you love them all the more?

What quirks do you have? Do you leave teabags on the sideboard, like I do? Do you tend to whistle in the shower? Or stick your foot in things too often? Or perhaps you tend to get over excited about a plan or idea and then drop it five minutes later?

People have quirks. They are full of conflict and oxymorons. I’m confident, but I don’t like having the spotlight on me. Sing happy birthday to me in a crowded restaurant and I’ll want to hide under the table. Put me up on a stage and ask me to give a speech to a crowd? No problem. How do I connect those two things together? How can I be both confident and shy? Easy. I’m a human, and we’re conflicted all the time. We hold conflicting opinions, we believe conflicting things.

So should your characters. They should be messy and flawed, they should make a tonne of mistakes and they should suffer because of them.

Because we want to see them grow.

So take a look at the people around you. The people you love. Perhaps peer into your own looking glass for a little while, and try and add a drop of what makes us humans wonderfully, beautifully flawed into your characters. Try and give them some of the edge that we carry with us every day.

In short: how to craft loveable characters

If you want to craft characters that your readers will fall in love with, they should be rounded characters. You have to give them depth, explore their past, find out what has hurt them and discover what it’ll take to get them to change. If you’re stuck at where to start, begin at the wound. What hurt them. Then you can work up their lie, want, need and truth. Make sure your characters are flawed, conflicted by consistent. And best of all, use the people around you as inspiration, put a drop of what you love about them onto the page.

I’ve written some other stuff on characterisation too. If you’re not sure if your problem really is characterisation, you can do some troubleshooting here. If you’re wondering how characterisation and empathy sit together, you can find out more on that here!

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