Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No Cardboard Cut-outs Here!

I love reading books by authors who know how to create vivid, real, three-dimensional characters for me. I'm a big fan of plot twists, suspense, and humor, don't get me wrong, but if all of that is coupled with cardboard-cutout characters, I'm just not interested.

Loving three-dimensional characters and learning how to write them are two different things. Here are a few tips on how to do it well (please add your own in the comments section if you think of anything I've missed!):

1. Give your characters a past. Your character's life doesn't start on page one of your manuscript. He/she has friends, family, schooling, hobbies, first dates, injuries, lessons learned, camping trips, vacations, fears and reasons for those fears. Characters don't spring fully-formed into adulthood. They are shaped by their past and the choices they've made. You don't have to give every detail of that past in your writing but you should reference it comfortably to give your readers a sense of what formed your character.

2. Give your character a unique voice. I can't stress enough how important this is. Every character in your book should have responses, expressions, and thought patterns that are unique to them. Take the time to get into each character's head before writing their POV to make sure the words are authentic to that character. If you're worried you have characters who sound alike, highlight every character's dialogue or POV in a separate color and then compare.

3. Give your character flaws. Heroes and heroines who never exhibit poor reactions, wrong choices, out of control emotions, or Achilles heels are just annoying. Readers don't want pristine, never-makes-a-wrong move characters. They want characters they can love, flaws and all. Often a character's flaws are useful in driving the plot toward the Black Moment. Don't be afraid to let your characters make bad choices, over react, or nearly lose everything because they've got a blind spot the size of the Pacific.

4. Give your character room to grow. Let your characters start the book with something to learn, something to attain, some unbearable choices to make and see what happens. Throw in obstacles, yank out support, strip away their options until you, the character, and the reader can't see any way for a happily ever after to happen. Do all that and then see what your character is made of and let them cope.

Anything else you'd like to add?


  1. L.C never overreacts. Ever.



  2. I always tell my playwrighting students NOT to write themselves into their plays. Because we tend to see the world as happening TO us, we tend to overlook our own flaws (which often cause us to stumble headlong into our conflicts). And as you so rightly point out, characters need flaws.
    I tell my students that if you must write yourself into a script (or a novel, I suppose!)- change something. Gender, race, religion, sexual preference, era, age... something. Make "your" character somewhat alien to you so that you can write with a sense of unbiased scrutiny.
    That happens to be, by the way, the most difficult "Ms. D." rule for my students to follow.
    What do you guys think? Do you write yourselves into your fiction?

  3. Danielle -

    Yes, the danger in writing yourself into your book is that every character would sound the same. Plus, as you pointed out, we lack perspective.

    I pull pieces of myself and put them into different characters but usually those pieces are exaggerated. For example, I might take my love of near-death-experience roller coasters and extrapolate the incredible RUSH of taking that kind of risk and then apply it to a character who takes real life risks for very different reasons.

  4. Katy,

    What part of blowing up a space port and shooting everything that moves do you qualify as overreaction??

    Seems like a normal bout of PMS to me.


  5. LMAO. She hasn't blow up a space port! (yet)

    I think in L.C.'s case it's more of an endearing quality than a flaw, but others might disagree. :D

    For some reason I adore character flaws and always feel better once I figure out the major ones in a character. Probably because as you said, it makes them so much more alive.


  6. Katy- in that case-- you ought to just LOVE me;) I like that... I'm not a mess... I'm just so alive!

  7. Danielle -

    Are we meeting in San Francisco? *grins* Cause ... awesome!


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