Friday, April 17, 2020

How to Create Fiction That Readers Can’t Put Down

 Readers need both emotional and intellectual connection to fiction or they won’t continue reading. If this connection isn’t created, readers will simply say: So what? Then they’ll toss what they’re reading aside and look for something else. Since we writers put their blood, sweat and emotional existence into giving birth to our babies, it’s natural to want our work read. So how do writers create fiction that readers will care about? It’s not a secret. The answer lies with the characters.
Writers must first know their characters.
It is not enough to have a general idea of a character in your head when you start writing. You have to live and breathe the character, know him/her the way you know yourself. In essence, realistic characters are extensions or facets of yourself. My suggestion: Create a detailed written character study of each main character before you begin to write your story or novel.
Here are a few items to consider:
Names
Shakespeare asks: What’s in a name? Clearly, a whole lot. A sweet young thing might have a soft-sounding name while a villain might have a hard-sounding one. What about ethnic names? Are they appropriate or inappropriate for your work?
Another thing you need to keep in mind is not to give characters names that might confuse readers. Names that are too similar in nature--for instance, Jane and Jana--should belong in different stories.
The name of your character will likely cause an assumption of gender, unless you are trying to keep it ambiguous. When I introduced African-American detective “Bert St. Croix” early in the novel THE DROWNING POOL,  the second book in my Kim Reynolds series, it comes as something as a surprise that she is a woman. She is tall, strong and fierce. A more masculine name fits her character. Readers don’t learn her back story right away, only the contrast that she has great sympathy and compassion for those who are in need of help but is tough with criminals. Nicknames are also something to consider. Does your character have a nickname like “Bert" short for “Roberta”? What might that suggest about the character?
Age
Age at the time of the story is significant. Is your story about an adult, a teenager, a child?  Point of view and voice differ with each. Also consider how the time period the character lives in effects personality and beliefs. This is especially important in historical fiction.  In my historical romance SINFUL SEDUCTION, the novel is told in third person narrator from two distinct viewpoints—male and female. They are very different people who are in conflict both morally and politically.
 Also, when the main character is telling the story from a first person viewpoint there may be twists and turns in the plot. The unreliable first person narrator is very common to mystery fiction. Sometimes the reader knows just what the narrator knows while other times the reader deduces more. Dramatic irony can build tension and suspense.
Back Story/Personal History
Although you know your character’s back story or personal history, the reader should learn it slowly, piece-meal, bit by bit. This makes your character interesting and adds an intriguing aura of mystery which causes readers to turn the pages to find out more details about the character.  Avoid info dumping.
Making Your Character Sympathetic
Characters need to be relatable as well as real. This means they need to have good qualities that readers like but also character flaws just like an ordinary person. They also need to have goals and ambitions that they’re striving toward. I prefer to make my main characters sympathetic but complex. Jennifer Stoddard in THE INHERITANCE is a widow raising a small child and in financial distress. Her inheritance complicates her life further by putting her in danger.
Appearance
It’s important to know how your characters look. Not only should you have a picture in your mind but you need to describe in words how the characters appear: short, tall, handsome, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, eye color, hair color.
Mannerisms are important as well. Does your heroine bite her nails, twist locks of her long hair? Does your hero flex his muscles? Does your villain speak in a soft, menacing voice?
Relationships
Start first with the family members, especially if they are an important part of the story. Who are the parents, siblings and extended family of your character? It’s not enough to just come up with names for them when developing your main subject. What are they like? Provide descriptions, personalities, etc. Are there any problems your character has with them? Kim Reynolds, the academic librarian sleuth first introduced in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, has a complex family dynamic that includes dark secrets.
What about friends? If they play a part in the story, we need to know your main character’s interactions with and feelings about them. In the Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim comes to love police detective Mike Gardner. Their relationship is complicated in THE TRUTH SLEUTH by the return of Mike’s wife, Evelyn, who becomes THE BAD WIFE in the 4th novel in this series. Kim and Bert St. Croix also become close friends, and in THE BAD WIFE, they work together and quite literally save Mike’s life.
Personality
 Get to know your character’s strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents and hobbies. How does your character think, speak, act? What do other characters say about him/her?
Weave body language in with dialogue. This often creates subtle emotional signals. What is said may be in contrast to what the character actually thinks and feels. Val Williams, the central character in my YA novel WITCH WISH, has a sharp sense of humor, but she is also jealous of her older sister and hurt by her mother’s antipathy.
When you write a scene where there is interaction between characters, try to visualize it as you would see it in a film. There’s nothing wrong with having the image in your mind of real people. It’s also okay to eavesdrop on conversations and be an objective observer which will provide you with material for your writing.
In DEATH LEGACY, Michelle Hallam is a mysterious English woman who has been trained in intelligence work. She is wary and guarded while Daniel Reiner appears to be open and more balanced in his approach to life. They are very different people who come together as lovers and detectives to solve a murder espionage mystery as their lives are placed in jeopardy putting them increasingly in danger. In DEATH PROMISE, the two return to solve yet another murder mystery; their complex relationship remains a key factor in the novel. The bantering dialogue between them shows their differences while being entertaining and advancing the plot.
 Okay, I’ll reiterate a few points:
 1. Be selective in choosing the names that convey what you want readers to visualize about your character.
2. Appearance is important. What does your character look like? Description can convey much about character. But don’t overdo it. As the old saying goes: show don’t tell.
3. What is special about your character’s speech? Are there unique phrases used? Dickens was a master of this. Also, dialogue should seem natural, they way real people talk.
4. Get into the mind set of your character. How does your character think?  James Joyce is a good writer to read for internal monologue technique.
5. How does your character act, react and interact with others?
6. What do other characters say about him/her?
7. Does the entire presentation have verisimilitude? Do your characters seem real and believable?
8. What values and goals are unique to your character?


Your comments, observations and input are welcome here!

17 comments:

  1. Jacquie, this is a comprehensive, well-explained list of how to create characters. Gave me some food for thought. Hope you are doing well in this fraught time.

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    1. Hi Jan,

      We are soldiering on though our anxiety level is high. I hope the blog is useful to you.

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  2. Great advice on characters, something, unfortunately, I always struggle with. I'll focus on your tips. Thanks.

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  3. Thanks for the character study tips. I agree that characterization is the foremost tool for creating a relatable story, and you do this so well.

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    Replies
    1. Saralyn,

      Thanks for dropping by and for the generous compliment!

      Delete
  4. Excellent advice. Nothing frustrates me more than having to check to see which character the author's talking about because their names are so similar. Now, back to work on my character study!

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    Replies
    1. Kathy,

      It often amazes me how some writers use such similar names for characters and confuse readers.

      Delete
  5. Lots of good advice here. I definitely agree on the reference to Joyce.

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    1. Thank you, John. For me, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist was a favorite. I love the unique way Joyce got into the mind of a child.

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  6. All are good points, Jacqueline.

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  7. GREAT advice as usual, Jacqueline!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Good luck and God's blessings
    PamT

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  8. As good an education on fiction writing as one could get without being in an actual classroom. Jacqueline, this is an excellent treatise of how-to's and what to think abouts, finished with the point by point summary. Your suggestion that the character development is the engine that starts the car is something I found to be the case with both of my novels.

    Keith S.

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  9. Keith,

    I'm glad you agree about character development being crucial. Thanks for commenting.

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