Take a minute and think back to a book that you loved, but a read a long time ago. Got one? Good. Now what do you remember the most about the story? The plot? The conflicts? The setting? The descriptive writing? Maybe somewhat, but most likely, right about now, you’re recalling a character.
Characters make or break a story (like you’ve never heard that one before). They are the driving force. Characters are to literature as subjects are to sentences. They perform all of the action. They are the ‘who’ in the ‘who, what, where, why, and how.’ See what I did there? 🙂
That’s why it’s so important to develop rich, flawed, plausible characters. No stick figures. No stock figures. No one-dimensional perfectionist heroes. Real people. Your mother. Your boyfriend. Your neighbor. You.
I wrote an article for Suite 101 that outlined the difference between round and flat characters. See here: Round Characters vs. Flat Characters
But as I grow with my writing, I’ve come to learn that the trick for creating indelible characters lies within the fundamentals. The essentials. The stripped-down-naked emotions. The desires, the needs, the motivations, the vulnerabilities, or perhaps most importantly, the intentions. It may take a few drafts to get there, but once you do, once you see what your characters want, what they are after, the other stuff–physical traits, personality, backgrounds–cleanly fall into place.
I’ll give a real life example. This past weekend was my bachelorette party. We went down to Atlantic City, and stayed at Harrah’s. At night, the hotel pool area is given a sort of pseudo club vibe with remixed versions of various already-disposable Top 40 hits. Hardly my scene, especially since at 29, I felt like the Grandma who seemed to have forgotten how to walk in four-inch heels.
Random groping, photobombing, and dresses that fall right below the butt cheeks were the norm. I could practically smell the pheromones. Naturally I’d never been more grateful for my soon-to-be husband, or quite frankly, my age. If I’ve ever wished I was twenty-two again, I don’t after this weekend, because being twenty-two means going to the pool after dark. And going to the pool after dark means being star struck by Jersey Shore cast members.
At one point in the evening I found myself talking a twenty-three year guy who seemed flabbergasted at the thought of my getting married. “That’s such a long time,” he kept saying. “You’re twenty-three,” I responded, “for tonight, just focus on finding a dance partner.”
But then the conversation took a strange turn. Yes, I’m aware of his state of inebriation, but his whole tone changed. “It’s weird,” he said, “last night I had a dream about a brunette, and I don’t know, I was in love with her or something.” He proceeded to tell me that girls from his town didn’t take relationships seriously, and an ex in the past had hurt him, and so forth.
It dawned on me then. Maybe deep down, this hand-friendly crowd is hoping to meet someone interesting, hoping to feel a spark, a connection. Perhaps secretly, all they really want is a reason for going out, for dressing inappropriately, for drinking beyond recognition…maybe….just maybe, they are hoping to go beyond the overstated notion of ‘scoring.’ Maybe they want to be carried away by love.
Not everyone in the club of course. But some. Your character maybe. See what I did there? I’ve come full circle. If you, as a writer know that in essence, your binge drinking, weight lifting, protein gurgling, hair-gelling party guy character wants someone to connect with…it’s easier to establish his purpose. He may act one way on the outside, but you and your readers know what it is he truly longs for. And that, my fellow intrinsic writers, is what makes a well-rounded character.