There are a lot of aspects to writing. Definitely more than I could go into with a single post.
So, say you had to pick one that would make the most difference to a story. What would you choose?
(You people do ask the best questions. I’m glad I keep you around.)
That makes the most difference?
Well, if you read the title of this post, you’ve likely already guessed it:
That’s the biggie. The sine quo non of stories.
It’s the character we, as readers, are relating to. It’s the character we root for or against.
(yes, you can write a main character you want your readers to root against, it’s just damn difficult, and few writers have ever done it well.)
It’s the character that’s makes us care.
I tend to write speculative fiction. That’s a big umbrella: horror, science fiction, fantasy – and all of the sub-genres hiding under that cover. It’s genres all the way down people.
Before I get too far off course, every genre of writing has its tropes and its furniture. They’re the “neat”, “gross”, “cool” bits we happen upon in the prose. But the furniture of a story is only impactful to a reader when we get to see how it impacts the character.
So, at what point in time does this become actual writing advice? I hear you asking.
(Damn, you have good timing. Remind me to ask you about lottery numbers some time.)
Your main character (MC) has to be interesting.
If the MC isn’t interesting to you, they won’t be interesting to us.
The sad truth is, even if the MC is interesting to you, they still may not be interesting to us. That’s what Beta Readers and Critique partners are for.
How do you make an MC interesting?
(Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. I’m watching you.)
Make your MC as much like a real person as you can possibly get, without delving into Weird Science/ Frankenstein territory.
Who is your MC and what do they love?
What do they hate?
What gets on their nerves, and what do they let roll off their backs without a second thought.
Physical descriptors are great. But they’re not the most engaging part of the character.
Personality. History. Quirks. Strengths. FLAWS!
Those make your MC feel real.
No reader has ever met a perfect person. They sure as hell haven’t met your conception of a perfect person. This makes perfect seeming characters feel off to a reader. And, if you want to put your readers slightly off, that is one way to go. Just make certain you’ve laid the groundwork to keep the reader turning the pages.
If your MC seems perfect, you need to give the reader a clue that the operative term here is “seems”. You need to lay out the threads a reader can tug on to find the deeper truth of the character.
If your character doesn’t have a deeper truth, ask yourself if that’s the most interesting character in the story. Odds are good they won’t be, and you should make one of your other characters the MC. It might make the writing harder, but it will definitely make it better.
Hindsight is always 20/20.
Writing is like hindsight’s crystal ball.
You see it all in front of you as you create it. You take the time to think about things, and in doing so you think about your character’s choices, because their choices drive the plot.
But remember, you have to time to sit and think about it. That will make some of you – ahem! and Me – tend toward trying to find the right/ perfect solution to your character’s problems.
Work hard to avoid this.
Your characters don’t have the crystal ball. And they don’t have your time to think things through, especially if your pacing is on point.
Sometimes, after I’ve come up with “just the right” thing to say or do, I stop and try to think about what the complete wrong thing to say or do in that situation would be.
No, I don’t always go with that, but it gives me the spectrum of things for the character to operate in. Depending on the character, their flaws & strengths, the pacing, and the obstacles, then I make the decision.
(Ok, yes, sometimes it just comes out of my head in the correct configuration for that point in the story, but not as often as I’d like. And telling you that would be boring anyways. “Just get it right the first time. Geez, what’s wrong with you?” I can be an asshole, at times, but not that kind of asshole.)
So, why does all this matter?
(Look at you, going for the point’s throat like a leopard on a gazelle.)
Because creating an interesting character, and letting them make appropriately bad decisions is a wonderful way to discover parts of your story that you didn’t know were there.
That is both delightful to the writer, and engaging to the reader.
And it is the best way to create the unexpected.
Yeah, I know there’s nothing new under the sun, but there are a bunch of configurations of old shit we haven’t all seen yet. And those make it all worth it.
Your interesting character and their not-perfect decisions could show you that, show us that.
Human beings are hard-wired to seek novelty.
Gimme, gimme, gimme new stuff!
Novelty sparks something in us. Wakes us up. Leaves impressions.
And that is what you want your writing to do.
That’s sure as hell what I want my reading to do.
Character does that.
Make us hate them, love them, pity them, lust after them – doesn’t matter. Just make us feel them and let them do their thing.
After that, the rest is technical furniture – rearrange it until it makes the story look the way you want it to appear.
Give your readers characters that feel alive, and your readers will give you their attention.
Until next time…