As I work on a very long and complicated mystery, I’ve done a lot of thinking about characters. The characters I love, the characters I hate, and the characters I’m completely blah about. What differentiates them? I think it’s their soul. Not in a religious context. But soul as in what makes a person who they are.
Far too often of late, I’ve read books and had no thoughts on the characters. In fact, when the book was done, I almost instantly forgot them and their storyline. Why? Because there was nothing to them. Not the progonist. Not the antagonist. It was as if they were nothing. And while that happens many times in short stories unfortunately, the books I’m thinking about were full-length novels put out by major publishing houses. If the author had taken some time to give their characters some soul, it could have been so different.
So what do I mean? Well, a reader not only needs to picture the characters in their head. They need to love or hate them, or bond with them for some reason. Without that, the book and the characters within are a bit of a waste.
Let’s take, for example, a character who is described as broody. Every time the reader sees him, he is gloomy. Okay. But why is he brooding? Was he abused? A teenager who is angry? Did he lose someone he loved? Or is this a case of an act he puts on to cover up his real personality? Is he the antagonist who is going to put your protagonist through hell? These are important questions – and the author should answer them if this character is going to appear more than once. But not in a dump. Whatever you do, don’t dump the info on us. Don’t tell us. Show us. Let us follow this character and find out why he always wears a frown.
And speaking of the antagonist character (If your antagonist is a character and not a thing). What makes this individual the enemy? Why is he/she going to stop your protagonist from getting what he/she wants? What is his/her motivation? Give us a reason to root against this character. We love a character we can hate, right? For Harry Potter fans, think of the Malfoys. Aren’t they a family you love to hate? Not to mention Lord Voldemorte – and that’s a character that Rowling developed wonderfully over the series. We knew his past, we saw his soul laid bare, and we still hated the bastard. Now, that’s writing.
How about the protagonist? What is this individual’s motivation? Why does he/she want what he/she wants? Why is it important? If the person is just used to getting their own way, that shows no depth and you probably need to bring in the antagonist to run the protagonist through fire to make them worthy to achieve said goal. Your protagonist must grow. Let me repeat: Your protagonist must grow. If your protagonist is the exact same person at the end of the book as he/she was at the beginning, there has been no growth. Which ends up a pretty 2-dimensional, flat character.
But that is just two parts of your characters. What about your secondary characters. For unless you are writing a short story, your story must have other individuals, even if only for a short scene. Those characters need to have their own soul, as well. That can be painted through body language, tone of voice, expression on face…or any number of different ways. During your first draft, you’ll probably take the easy way out and say: “She looked mad.” Hopefully, as you re-write, you might change it to say something like: “From the way she held her body, still and straight, her gaze practically spitting fire and her hands clenched, something was going on.” This is a character with real emotions, not just a simple drawing on a page.
In fact, that is how you should see your characters. As drawings. Your first draft is the outline of their shape. Your second draft fills in the finer points of their form with straight lines or curves. By the time you have reached your final draft, your character drawing is perfect with strong colors and defining characteristics. Or, to be exact: With emotions, a past, and an individual we will remember.
In this age of fast publication, it is easy enough to write the first draft and move on. I highly suggest you never do that. Write. Put the manuscript away. For at least a month – yes, you read that right. A month. For a novel, think 4-6 months. Then go back with a new eye, with a brain that has forgotten the finer parts of the story. Here you can spot plot holes, feel the emptiness of your characters, redefine, recolor, and recreate. Find your characters soul and make it shine.
Think about characters who have lived through the years: Scarlett O’Hara, Elizabeth Bennett, Mr. Darcy, Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy, Boo Radley…and my list could go on into infinitum. These characters had their good points and their bad points. All shown with wonderful detail. Again – they were ‘shown’ not told. And, when you take into account Boo, who’s story the reader hears through mentions of others until the end, that’s some pretty impressive storytelling. Give your characters the chance to shine with these characters, to stand the test of time. To be the kind of character that when a reader finishes the book, they will never quite forget.
Give your character a soul.