So, I had one of those moments recently…Yes, one of those moments when your characters take over the story. ‘Well,’ you say, ‘the book is about them.’ ‘Yes,’ I answer, ‘but I’m the author. I’m supposed to be in charge.’ An important event in a book I was recently writing was supposed to happen many chapters later, but my characters insisted it happen in chapter four. And once I started into it, I realized how much better it would be for this to happen earlier rather than later for the plotline. So, I guess those characters of mine know what they’re talking about. Has this ever happened to you — your characters taking over the writing and in the end knowing better than you about their story? There is a reason for that. These characters have in a sense come to life and their desires have taken precedence over yours or mine.
Characters are the driving force within a story, making readers care to keep turning those pages. Think of your favorite books – what would they be without the heroes of those stories? I love Pride and Prejudice but with no Elizabeth Bennet there would be no life and no reason to keep reading. (“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters...” E. Bennet Chapter 24)
A good writer will wrap a reader up into a world with characters who seem to be living breathing people instead of words on a page. To accomplish this, one of the first things you as an author must determine is what the desires of your characters are. He should want something—have a force that drives him. It doesn’t have to be something huge and larger than life (although it certainly can be). It just has to be something!
In my holiday romance, All I Want for Christmas, my heroine, Kathryn, wants to be an important journalist. She’s tired of writing ‘puff’ pieces. After receiving gifts from a Secret Santa, she makes it her mission to figure out who he is. And though she doesn’t know it, she also wants to be loved. She wants to move past the hurts of her past and create a family of her own. Great plotlines can come out of character desires.
Once you’ve set up your character’s desire(s), next you need to add some layers. Even a simple, one-dimensional character has desires. The villain wants the money at any cost. The baker must deliver his delectable creation to the wedding on time. They have desires just as much as any other character you’ve ever seen. What makes yours unique and different?
I wrote my third installment in my NovelTea series as a cozy mystery, I had the opportunity to create several secondary characters…ahem…suspects. Now, they could come across as merely archetypes if I didn’t add some human layers and complexity to them. Every character has a history and that history affects who they are and how they behave. The reader will never know all of their past but you, the all-knowing author, do. Armed with that knowledge, you can make your characters deeper and more interesting.
My government agent character, Grant Gerard, from my NovelTea books is a spy of the cocky variety and he knows it. If I just left him at that, he would be a boring, one-dimensional character. (And probably irritating) But in book two, a bit of his past leaks out and you can see the turmoil he has in talking about his family. He has fears too. His swaggering personality might just be a cover for his real feelings, after all, which makes him real and much more likeable. And to top it all off, he reads. Yes, he reads classic literature (my heroine’s favorite). That facet of his personality makes him my unique, cocky government agent.
Remember that villain I mentioned earlier. He has a past too. Perhaps he was a good kid who got wrapped up in the wrong crowd which led him astray. His father died when he was young, leaving him no option but to find a way to provide for his mother. His mother, ah yes, a good woman she is. It would disturb her to no ends if she knew what he was involved in which causes him to hide his activities and build the internal conflict within him. It is a necessity to find something that makes your character unique and play that up into the plot. Human complexity, yes, the spice of life.
So as you sit down to begin a new or even your first story, think to yourself, ‘What is my character’s desire—the burning need, aspiration or yearning that forces him into action?’ And along with that find a way to make your characters distinctive from any other. In the end, it will produce authentic characters which elicit stories about something—stories worth reading, stories worth remembering.