Writing Advice of the Week: Give Your Characters Character

Reading Time: 11 minutes
(Image by Fallon Clark via Firefly.)

I never expected to stumble upon a fiction author who would deny the necessity of a character transformation arc in stories until it happened. 

In talking about the importance of character growth and how to show that growth in fiction, a voice spoke up from the back to say, “Not all characters change. Not all even need to change, like Sherlock Holmes. He’s the same in every book.”

But the author’s comment made me pause.

Is it actually possible to have a character move through an entire story without being changed whatsoever?

Even the unchanging Sherlock Holmes showed incremental character growth in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” when the usually cold and distant detective shows true concern for Watson.

     “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”

     It was worth a wound –  it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed       for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble         but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

But largely, the author was correct. Sherlock Holmes did not show growth of character in all stories. Not even close.

Some stories have flat arcs, which I discussed last week, and this arc describes Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, James Bond, even Indiana Jones. And while readers of these heroes initially fell in love with the mystery of their stories, the characters became the faces of the type of story they were reading, be it murder mystery, treasure hunt, or something else.

Most, however, do have character transformation arcs.

And especially today, in the digital age where authenticity reigns supreme, character transformation is a major tool for bridging the gap and creating an immersive, emotionally intelligent connection between character and reader.

That emotional connection usually relies on the character’s transformation. And at the heart of your character’s transformation arc lies their character — the intrinsic, moral and ethical principles  which make a person who they are, the parts they display with their personality.

This week’s writing advice is all about character. So unless you’re that one guy in the back standing atop the unchanging Sherlock Holmes hill, let’s dig in!

First up for the week, find 7 Tips To Craft Compelling Character Motivation In Fiction by C. S. Lakin for Helping Writers Become Authors. This article starts by going over character motivation to inform and defend the plausibility of the plot — a great nugget of advice in itself.

But the article goes on to show why and how characters are the lifeblood of each story. Lakin asks you to assess how you present your character’s physical appearance, desires, and core need, and urges you to give your character room to explore and breathe so readers can relate to them.

Now, don’t go on an info-dump rampage and litter your story with character descriptions and explanations. The key to creating relatable characters exists in delivering the right information at the right time.

No pressure, right?

Taking away some of that pressure is Philip Athans for Fantasy Author’s Handbook, who tells you to Describe Characters As You Go Along, which is especially good advice if this is your first book and you haven’t quite figured out the lay of the proverbial land yet. Placing small details about your character in the moment is an art and should depend on the immediate scene at hand.

Athans provides an example of how to actually do this using a comic book from the late 1930s — and probably earned some cool-kid points just for incorporating comic books into a discussion that is largely novel-centric.

And if there’s one piece of Philip’s advice I love, it’s that not all details matter. When I coach authors through writing and revisions, I talk to them often about paring down details to the ones readers need. This often means trimming your character details list to about a quarter of its original size and getting comfortable leaving the rest to readers to figure out for themselves.

Readers get it, they really do.

But if there’s one clear detail your readers need, it’s the one they can’t get from physical descriptions or explanation: Your character’s voice.

Development of voice means getting into your character’s head — to hear their thoughts and how they think, to capture their tone and general disposition, to learn how their backstory affects them, and more.

E. S. Foster for A Writer’s Path provides you with How To Establish A Character’s Voice, and to do this effectively, you’ll need explore the ins and outs of what makes your character who they are beyond their personality driven behaviors. While Foster talks about the importance of defining who you want your character to be, I’m of the mindset that your characters should tell you who they are.

A slow-living homesteader speaks and thinks differently than a Wall Street executive.

A twelve-year-old child speaks and thinks differently than a burned-out 40-something ER nurse.

A bitter paper-pusher speaks and thinks differently than the person who just opened the shop downtown.

If needed, revisit Characters Are People Too and consider taking them out to dinner. You know, to get to know them better. You never know what you’ll learn about a two-dimensional person you thought you created.

And when you’ve listened to your character speak, figured out the precise details you must include about them, and have detailed stylistic notes about your character’s speech and thought patterns that make up their voice, wrapping all those bits up to create a story that packs an emotional punch is the ultimate goal.

After all, readers become hooked when they feel the story, when they experience the story — not when they’re merely reading and turning pages for the sake of finishing something.

And that assumes they’re actually finishing.

To punch up the future reader’s emotional investment, check out Increasing The Emotional Impact Of Your Story by Angela Ackerman for Writers In The Storm. Ackerman provides a detailed list of strategies to use, none of which should be a surprise, but all of which are important for writing a novel that punches your readers right in the ventricular meat.

And underneath the message in the article is the foundational idea that your character’s lesson learned should be relatable for readers, even if the plot and world are fantastical. So help your readers find common ground, and off they’ll go.

Now, in talking about character, most of you likely assume I’m talking about the hero of the story. And for the most part, perhaps I am. But if your hero is going to have something worthwhile to fight for, they’re going to need a worthy opponent to battle to get it. Remember: failure is human, but so is a good ole fight once in a while.

Lauren Davish for BookBaby Blog gives us an article titled, Protagonist Vs. Antagonist: A Guide To Writing Characters, and Davish’s advice applies whether your villain is a person, a psychological state of being, a social issue, or something out of another dimension.

Since your antagonist is the driving force of the conflict of your story, the thing or person that holds your hero back, who causes the hero some serious turmoil, you’ll need to understand the motivations and goals of both hero and villain to figure out how best to pit them against each other.

But you know one person who needs no adversary? You!

Karen Whiting for The Write Conversation reminds you to Add Joy To Author Marketing. Because after your book is written and ready for the world, you have to tell people it’s ready and get them interested in reading it. And though you may believe that the universe delivers its gifts in due time, most of us aren’t excited about the prospect of posthumous recognition, the way of Thoreau, Kierkegaard, or Dickinson.

And if you want to reach readers, you have to participate in marketing. Marketing is the path you take to curate your future reading audience, and you’ll need to define what your audience looks like. After all, “my book is for everyone” written into a proposal or pitch is likely to land your submission in the circular file.

Consider what makes your target readers happy, what makes them laugh. Share with them anecdotes about your joy during writing or revisions. Share your readers stories about what your book meant for them. Those warm-and-fuzzy feelings travel far, even if your story is anything but warm and fuzzy.

And sharing joy with the world — or, if not the world, than with your readers — can become a mark of your character.

As always, there was a lot of advice I couldn’t share this week, so check the links below for added nuggets of wisdom.

Happy writing!

More Productivity and Motivational Advice from the Past Week
More Craft Advice for the Week
More Business Advice for the Week

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Edited by Melody Friedenthal

Fallon Clark is the book pal who helps you tell your story in your words and voice using editorial, coaching, writing, and project management expertise for revision assistance, one-on-one guidance, and ghostwriting for development. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonClark.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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