Writing Advice of the Week: Characters Are People Too

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(Image by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly.)

One of the most common bits of advice given to authors is to humanize their characters. Give them flaws. Dreams. Fears. Desires. Yada, yada, yada. But if you’ve filled out character profile sheets — or discarded them in sheer frustration — you know how little value this piece of advice actually provides. Every author works a little differently, plans a little differently, and sometimes those prescriptive methods just don’t work for us.

Sure, our characters are people (most of the time, anyway—more on monsters below!), and they need to be relatable for readers to identify or empathize with them. But how exactly does one go about humanizing a character, making a character relatable, inviting readers to share in the character’s experiences, and—most of all—creating a believable experience for readers? And how does it work when the character is totally different than we are or does something different than we’ve ever done?

Kelley J. P. Lindberg for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers tells you to Share Experiences With Your Characters in this helpful, yet succinct, piece. Kelley shares that while the internet is useful for finding all kinds of how-to information and tutorials (thanks, YouTube), watching a how-to about climbing Everest pales in comparison to the experience of climbing Everest. Secondhand how-tos tend to dilute experiential information. When your character does something that you don’t do and you need to write about it, do the thing! Kelley cautions prudent authors not to run a bank heist, of course. Writing crime thrillers does not mean one must become a criminal. But you could visit a bank and detail your visit through the eyes of your criminal character, for example. And Kelley urges us all to detail the things we do for our characters using the spectrum of available senses so when we sit down, we write a well-rounded experience for our readers.

And if you’ve done the things and noted the sensory details, perhaps it’s understanding where to put those details that matters most to you. If that’s the case, Janice Hardy for Fiction University has a great Description Tip: Make “Sense” Of Your Characters. You’ll need to identify the scenes in your novel that need a bit of added sensory detail, perhaps ones you know are lacking in description or a scene that needs a little something-something to punch it up. And you’ll want to choose sensory details that match the mood of the scene at hand and play on the character’s emotions. And from experience, adding these kinds of details are what make settings truly come alive for readers.

Now, let’s say your character isn’t human but a monster. Bigfoot. Frankenstein’s monster. Grendel. Dracula. Kraken. Whatever your monstrous flavor, having a great villain is critical for creature features, but it’s also important in any story where monsters or monstrous villains play a big role. Readers aren’t particularly interested in one-dimensional characters even when they’re not supposed to relate to those characters. Or are they supposed to relate?

When it comes to Dracula, for example, he’s a pained monster driven by his instinct and nature. He doesn’t want to kill; he must do so to survive. King Kong was abducted from his home and thrust into a city. Frankenstein’s monster is downright childlike, acting out only when hurt or provoked and doesn’t realize his own strength. And the examples go on and on. Making your monster sympathetic is the key to writing a great monster, and Oren Ashkenazi for Mythcreants answers the question, How Do I Make A Monster Sympathetic? In the article, Oren suggests you take a step back from your story to consider the monster. Where did it come from? How did it get here? What does it lack? What does it think about its circumstance? What is the monster’s raison d’être? Once you understand your monster, you can sympathize with it. And only then can you relay that sympathy to your readers.

And, dear author, how exactly can you gain that insight into your character to relay their relatability? J.D. Barker, Christine Daigle, Kevin Tumlinson, and Patrick O’Donnell for Writers, Ink invited Sally Gardner to their podcast to discuss Why You Need To Take Your Main Characters Out To Dinner. Through the lens of writing her latest novel, The Weather Woman, Sally discusses her writing process, which includes conversations with her characters across the proverbial dinner table to better understand them. Ask your character the heavy-hitting questions to get to their inner nature and actively listen to the responses you receive. What do they say? How do they allow you to know your character better? Do you learn anything that surprises you?

When you’re finally done with the writing and you’re ready for the next step, does the idea of hiring a freelance editor make your belly squeezy? My colleague, Hannah de Keijzer, wrote 3 Common Fears Of Hiring A Freelance Editor for Jane Friedman. In the article, she discusses three fears many authors have in the editing process and give you permission to seek out a different editor if the one you’re working with is not cutting the mustard. And while Hannah is a non-fiction coach and editor, the advice she gives about those common fears is universal to the human experience and widely applicable no matter if this is your first book or your latest.

Have Feedback?

Did I overlook a golden nugget from Maria’s full list of the week’s writing advice from around the web? Have something else to add? Just want to say, “hello?”

Comment below and start a conversation.

Or watch me talk about characters and other topics in the video below!

Happy writing!

Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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