Crafting Strong Characters

By Kerstin Wolf

Pacing, plot, and voice all play a massive role in creating an unforgettable novel. Just as important as all of that though are the characters. If anything, I would argue that strong, relatable characters are the single most important part of a novel. Without interesting characters that readers can relate to, the book is forgettable. Think of your favorite book. While you may love the book for a number of reasons, I would bet that you really liked at least one of the characters. Heck, I plan on naming one of my future kids after a character in my favorite book of all time! Characters are important, and one of the things I’ve noticed a lot as of late while reading manuscripts is that the characters aren’t able to hold their own. The whole story suffers if the characters aren’t strong enough. For that reason, this blog post has come to be! In this article, I hope to address some of the key aspects to a great character.

Relatability

Relatable characters are massively important in fiction. What I mean by relatable is that the readers can feel some kind of connection between themselves and the character. It’s vital that there is connection because without it, readers may not care about the character and what happens to them. Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 1.28.23 PMThe goal is to have readers feel as if they are living in this world that you have created and that what is happening to the protagonist or the other characters feels like it’s actually happening to them or their friends. This connection with the readers can be as small as a human connection. If readers can’t relate to the character’s occupation or situation, then they at least need to be able to relate to the character’s emotions or thoughts. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like the readers to be relatable. For example, let’s say that there is a character that is a wizard and a mad scientist. Just because most readers are not likely to be mad scientists or wizards doesn’t mean that they can’t relate to this character. Perhaps the character doesn’t have many friends. This character is then relatable to anyone who has ever felt lonely.

Another thing that I have learned over the years is that dialogue and character reactions play a massive role in relatability. Nothing causes me to lose interest in a character faster than one that talks and acts like a robot (unless the character is in fact supposed to be a robot). Stiff dialogue is a surefire way to distance readers from the characters. Similarly, if a character’s family was just murdered and yet the character doesn’t even blink an eye, readers won’t be able to connect. When crafting characters, keep an extra close eye on these things. If your beta readers are struggling to feel concerned when the protagonist is surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, it may be because the character just isn’t relatable enough.

Motivation

Every character needs to have a motivation Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 12.34.49 PMof some sort. Every real person has a goal or dream that they wish to one day achieve. Similarly, if a person punches someone in the face, there probably was a reason for it. Just like real people, realistic characters need to have motivations that drive them as well. A real person wouldn’t rob a bank for no reason, so a character shouldn’t do that either. If you notice that your story is dragging even though there are back-to-back action scenes, it may be due to your characters not having a motivation to drive them forward and in turn move to plot forward.

Likability

Characters needs to be likable. Now, I don’t mean that every character needs to be a kind person who is always looking out for the underdogs and volunteers every chance they get. I don’t mean that at all. A character can be a raging alcoholic whose life is in shambles and still be likable. That actually describes Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities to a T! Sydney’s life is in utter disarray and he’s honestly a jerk most of the time, but he is the most likable and human character in the entire book. Why? Because he is flawed and broken, but he still cares about some things (although there are very few); and in the end, you have to respect the decision he makes. There just has to be something there, whether it be respect or understanding or something different all together, that keep readers wanting to read more about the character.

Even villains can be likable. We all have our favorite villain from a book or movie. Why do you like that specific villain so much? It’s probably not because they have a glittering conscience and a heart of gold. It may be because they are devious and manipulative or brutal and insane or cruel and calculating. None of these are admirable traits, but they all make up the perfect villains that we love to hate.

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So remember these three points the next time you’re crafting characters. Characters have the power to affect what emotions the readers feel, how quickly the book seems to go by, how readers perceive the world you created, and if the book will be one that the reader remembers. If you never forget reliability, motivation, and likability, then your characters will be jumping off the page in no time!

 

 

 

Plotter Or Pantser: Which Are You?

There are some big questions in life that all writers must address:

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Commit to a daily word count or take it chapter by chapter? Scrivner or Word? Write at home or go to Starbucks? Write every day or write only when you’re inspired? Wake up early to write or be a night owl and write? Write only after coffee or write after a few glasses of wine? …

But the biggest question all writers face? Should you plot… or not plot?  In other words…

Should you Pants or Plot?

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A Literary Agent Wants You To Revise And Resubmit… Now What?

So you’ve written The Book. You’ve polished The Book. You’ve emailed The Book to an assortment of wonderful, helpful critique partners and betas. You’ve polished more.

You’ve entered the query trenches.

Then you spend a long few weeks probably watching too many episodes of Downtown Abbey or getting lost in a Law & Order marathon.  You do everything possible to distract yourself from the obvious.  The agent has not responded.  They have neither approved nor rejected your query.  It’s like watching grass grow, is it not?  Or is it more like waiting for a pot of water to boil?  Whatever the case, it is a frustrating situation in which to find yourself.

How long must you wait?  Will it be a few days?  A few weeks or even a few months?  Will it be…forever?  Are you waiting on a response that will simply never come?  When do you stop waiting?  When do you stop hoping?  You can drive yourself mad just thinking and waiting.

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And then…

AT LAST! A reply! You see the little email from The Agent on your phone, and you rush to the computer because you’d rather read it on the big screen. You’ve read every interview this agent ever posted, stalked her Twitter for three straight months, and now the moment has finally arrived: An offer or a rejection.

Except it’s neither. You get a very long email with a number of “I loved” and “needs work.” The list of suggested edits goes on forever, and so far, the edits don’t seem too difficult.

Your initial thought:

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Then you keep reading. You get to the paragraph with a MAJOR revision, one that would completely alter your main character and really the entire book.

So what do you do? Well, you email those critique partners and betas again. You forward the agent’s comments and your own thoughts in giant red font (HOMG WHAT AM I GOING TO DO THIS IS INSANE).

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Take a deep breath. Now answer these questions:

  1. Do you see the reason behind the agent’s suggestion and how it would improve the story? If yes, continue.
  2. Do you like the agent and all of their comments? If yes, continue.
  3. Do the critique partners and beta readers agree (at least mostly)? If yes, continue.
  4. Is the edit doable? If yes, continue.
  5. Are you willing to do it? If yes, then you should.

If you answered no to any of these questions:

Question #1: Maybe you see where the agent is coming from, but you don’t think it’s necessary. The whole suggestion came out of left field. The critique partners and betas never mentioned it. Maybe you have an idea how to fix it without this exact suggestion. Emailing the agent with your thoughts isn’t such a bad idea. Show him/her a number of options to correct the problem and ask their professional opinion. If an agent took the time to read your full and write such a long email AND ask to probably read it again, he/she is interested in your manuscript.

Question #2: If you don’t agree with the majority of the agent’s edits and they don’t match what anyone has ever told you, then maybe this isn’t the agent for you. It’s your work, and if you have your own vision for it and the agent does not share it, then you should look for an agent that fits better with you.

Question #3: So your readers disagree. A good idea would be to edit your first chapter based on the agent’s edits and send it to them to see what they think is stronger, your original or the revised. If the majority of them still prefer the original (and you do as well), then maybe this isn’t the agent for you.

Question #4: So the edit doesn’t seem fixable. It would completely alter your story into something unrecognizable to the original, and even then, you’re not positive you can manage to fix that underlying problem. Again, I would consider emailing the agent your ideas for any fixes, and perhaps they will clarify or change their suggestion. It’s worth a shot, especially if you see why the agent suggested the edit.

Question #5: You’ve written and revised this book for months, maybe years. The idea of returning to it without an agent contract literally makes you exhausted and sick to your stomach. The agent wouldn’t make you go through such a tiring process of editing if she wasn’t interested in your project, so if you’re not ready to jump right into revisions, give it some time. It’s okay if you never look at The Book again, but sometimes all it takes is a few good books, a Pinterest inspiration board, and a good few days/weeks of rest to get you excited about a project again.

And of course, no matter what stage in the revision process you are, clap yourself on the back. An agent likes your project enough to read it all again, and The Book will be better for the edits in the end.

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Amanda Foody is a former intern with Holloway Literary.