January 5, 2013

Knowing Your Characters Deeply

The PCCC Writing Center blog welcomes Diane O’Connell this week. Diane is a veteran New York publishing professional, and as Editorial Director of Write to Sell Your Book, she specializes in helping first-time authors achieve publishing success. Follow Diane on Twitter at @WritetoSell.
Learning how to craft a compelling hero means truly understanding why you need one in the first place. Whether or not your protagonist’s journey inspires, frustrates, or enlightens your readers, one thing is key: the author of a phenomenal story not only completely knows her hero’s weaknesses and fears; she makes them confront these terrors face to face. It may sound like the work of an author is akin to the behavior of a sociopath. That’s actually not far from the truth.

It’s All About The Journey

Over the years, I’ve read so many manuscripts that fall short of compelling me. So often, no matter how vivid the story world, how fresh the language, or how original the premise, the biggest roadblock between an author and a publishing deal has to do with the hero’s journey. There’s a core question that the author did not fully confront: Why should readers care about my character’s story?

Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark

The best stories have characters whose journeys explore the inherent flaws of the human condition – and how those flaws either break or build them. Would Heathcliff be so compelling without his streak of darkness? Would The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne be so mesmerizing if she didn’t go through hell? Like Hamlet’s, your own character’s arc should inevitably spiral toward that inevitable doom, whether or not you choose to have your characters’ stories end up there at the end – that is the crux of a stellar story.

So, how do you do this?

Get Dirty and Dig

Making a character is much more than knowing the stats on her driver’s license. As the carpenter of your story, you must construct your hero from the ground up, or he won’t be able to weather a whole lot. It’s important to know the details. What are your hero’s ticks? Does she obsessively rub her hands a la the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth? Does he have 10 locks on his front door to symbolize his broken relationship with society? But, don’t stop at the character blueprint; have conversations with your character so you can fully anticipate her every move. Know your character’s mind as much as you know your own. When you come across something in your own life, ask, “What would my protagonist think about all this?”

Put Your Character Through The Ringer

Now that you know your character better than you know yourself, test her. This is where the story sprouts. The difference between a passable book and a bestseller comes down to the depth of the main character and the story that comes out of the journey your character undergoes. The plot has to be completely intertwined with your character’s journey.

Breaking Bad is not a novel, but the show’s writing is so fantastic that I always use it to demonstrate how storytelling not only entertains, but reveals the pitfalls of the human condition. In Breaking Bad, Walter White transforms dramatically from the challenges that cross his path. The writers always find ways to up the stakes, pushing the characters to the next breaking points. If the stakes are not high enough, your novel will be flat. It goes nowhere, and readers stop caring.

No matter where you are in the novel writing process, remember that every book that was truly groundbreaking delves into dark territory, at least a little bit. Ask your hero what her hopes and fears are. Then, make her biggest fear stand in the way of her biggest hope. No matter what you choose to do to thrust your character forward, remember: It’s painful to be a protagonist.

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