Here’s a guest post by Nikolas Baron about characters that live. For examples of books where the characters feel like real people, check out authors like, K L Going, Lisa Yee, Karen Rivers, and Sherman Alexie.
Creating Characters that Come to Life
The argument between writers who believe that plot is more important and those who favor characterization as the foundation of effective writing is long-running. Without an attention-grabbing plot, it’s difficult to keep the reader engaged, but without strong characters, the audience will quickly lose interest in even the most exciting action. Writing characters that draw the reader in is a matter of creating characters the reader cares about in the story. Even before a manuscript is run through a proofreading program, or the editing begins, it’s important to begin building characters that capture the reader’s attention and hold it through the story. Without a personal connection to the character, without a feeling of empathy, the reader will quickly lose interest and close the book or click away from the page.
Creating a connection with the reader requires an understanding of characterization. Characters come in several layers. The first layer character is flat, appearing only long enough to establish a scene or to set up the protagonist. The first layer character is the man or woman on the street, the child playing ball in front of the main character’s house as he stares out the window, contemplating his next move. They move the story forward, without becoming deeply involved. The first layer character is little more than a prop, a placeholder, which moves the story forward without becoming deeply involved. These characters are necessary to populate the stage and give background to the story, but they are little more than setting, used to establish a sense of place.
The second layer character is also known as the secondary character. This character may be a friend or family member of the main character. Their problems, fears, desires, or other conflicts exist only to move the main character forward. The secondary character may help move the main character forward, propelling him or her to action or motivating his or her development. The secondary character needs to be engaging to capture the reader’s interest, but should not hog the spotlight. The focus must remain in the main character in order for the story to keep moving forward. The secondary character serves as a foil, the Watson to Sherlock, the Robin to Batman, the Sam to Frodo. It’s hard to imagine one without the other, but while the story could be constructed without the secondary character, the protagonist, when it comes time to face the bitter climax, will go on alone, whether carrying the ring into Mordor, facing Moriarty, or bringing the villain to defeat.
The top-level (or main) character is the star of the show, the hero or heroine of the epic, and holds the focus from the beginning of the story to the end. This can be accomplished either by writing in first person, with the main character as the narrative voice of the story, or in third person by keeping the main character at the forefront of the action. Every plot point must focus on the main character’s story in some way. Even the conflict faced by the secondary characters must serve to move the main character forward in his or her journey.
Creating a relatable main character means paying attention to the details that make a character relatable. A secondary character must also have some of these virtues, but the main character should be a fully-developed creation, complete with hopes, dreams, goals, flaws, and mistakes. While a main character must have characteristics that make him or her likable and relatable, he or she should not be too perfect. Elsewise the author runs the risk of creating a character no one will like. Readers love a hero, but if the hero’s hair is never out of place, his teeth too white, her voice too sweet, or without a flaw to be seen, the reader will lose interest. While the action drives the plot, the change in the character himself or herself is the fuel that makes the engine run. A perfect character cannot change for the better, therefore there is nothing for the reader to advocate. A character must have flaws, not only to be believable, but also to be changeable for the better. Well rounded characters with problems, flaws, and depth are what make a story interesting to the reader.
By Nikolas Baron
Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.