What makes a book or movie special…makes it stick with you long after the cover is closed and the final credits have rolled? The special effects? The car chase? The slapstick comedy? Maybe for a while, but stories that really have lasting power contain one thing, great characters. And, honestly, building great book-carrying characters isn’t as hard as you may think. At least not with the help of the short Character Checklist that follows.
But first, let’s chat a little, shall we?
Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind), Rick Blaine (Casablanca), Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Jo March (Little Women) are just a few examples of characters that have proven to have staying power.
Creating characters like this may seem daunting, but knowing a few key things can make their creation a lot simpler–and I’m not talking hair color.
Writers spend a lot of time thinking about their characters, charting everything from their star sign to their eye color, to their first date in 6th grade, and while some of that information may be important, it is easy to get caught up in those details and miss what really makes a character.
To see what I’m talking about, think about the big scenes for these characters, the scene where they came alive. For Scarlett it would be her standing out in that field, holding up that handful of dirt or her tearing down those curtains. Those scenes gave us a glimpse at a Scarlett we hadn’t seen before–we’d seen hints that that strength was there, but not full evidence. And when those scenes revealed a truth about Scarlett we hadn’t seen before, we loved her and she stuck with us.
The same is true for the others.
So, how do you set these scenes up? How do you create characters that people will term great?
Character Checklist – Four simple things
- Give your character something to love and not just love, but love deeply. Give this character something that they would sacrifice everything to save. Think of Scarlett with that handful of dirt. She had lost everything, every pretty dress, every party, her entire world, but she still had Tara. Tara was important to her.
- Next, give your character something that haunts him. Ilsa stood Rick up at that train station in Paris. It destroyed him, destroyed the hopeful youth he had been. If this event hadn’t happened in his past, if he hadn’t still been carrying it around with him, Casablanca could not have been the story that it is.
- Third, figure out what your character thinks he can’t or most don’t want to do–then make him do it. Rhett didn’t want to join the fight; he didn’t want to leave Scarlett. He did both and we loved him.
- Along these same lines, have your character contradict himself or reader expectations of him. Scarlett was a flighty “I’ll think about it tomorrow” party girl, but she showed real grit when she had to. Rhett and Rick were disenchanted with life and tried to act as if they didn’t/couldn’t care about the cause of the day…but they did. They conquered their own pasts, fears, and weaknesses. Nothing makes a reader love a character more. (The Enneagram is a great tool to find believable character contradictions.)
Do the four things on this simple Character Checklist, and we will follow your characters anywhere.
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check out her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.
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Thanks for the reminder, Lori. Great characters + compelling story = published book. Average, ordinary, or predictable just won’t get the deal done.
Characters are everything to me. 🙂