The Craft of Writing Fiction: Characters (Part 3)

We’ve talked a bit about the motives of a character but I want to focus more clearly on this aspect of writing here.  Characters are one of the legs that hold up the chair that is your story. Without great characters you have a story that could possibly tumble over, fall flat, or just fail to draw in your reader.   Even a captivating setting or premise is going to lose its hold on a reader if they don’t care about the people in the situation.  

Image from New York Times

What can go a long way in making these characters people that a reader cares about is their motivations.  The motives of a character speaks volumes as to who they are as a person so this has to be gotten right by the author.  I’ve used these examples before but you can’t have a character who is evil just because they’re evil and you can’t have a hero that’s great just because they’re great.  If a hero is driven by something from their past or an ideology this helps make them more real but they also have to have faults too. Nobody is perfect, right?

So, even if the motivations for your character’s actions are misguided or based on some faulty sense of right or are just warped, if they are strong enough for the character, you go from having your reader rolling their eyes to your reader disagreeing with, arguing and rooting against a “bad guy” or seeing the cracks in the armour of your hero but cheering for them all the same.

A lot of motivation will come from a character’s past so having a solid foundation for these people will be vital.  While things like flashbacks can work, sometimes an entire novel in a series, or a second storyline are helpful in rooting out why characters are the way they are.  Again though, you have to let a reader know why but you don’t have to be exhaustive by it.

For example, I love the Harry Potter novels but, even with some explanation of his back story, I have always see Voldemort as just an evil guy.  He’s a fine foil to Harry but I never really felt I believed his intentions were, in his mind, justified because he was just a young wizard seduced by power over humans, drawn to dark magic, and then a powerful wizard that was just evil because he wanted to rule over others.  This is okay but there are other, more richly explained bad guys in the world of literature, so keep in mind there needs to be a solid ground for your characters to stand on, be they good or evil. Characters can get lost in the shuffle of plot but they are the reason for your story because even if something is happening, it needs to happen to someone, and for you to care about those people you must make sure you know your characters and let their personalities, warts and all, shine through in your work.