From time to time I’ll read a book written by an indie author. I like to see what’s going on in the world of self-publishing and what my
competition friends are writing. But I’ve happened upon a common theme–new authors don’t understand the concept of three-dimensional characters. Or if they do, they can’t correctly express it on the page.
What do we mean when we say readers want a well-rounded character?
When you read editing books, (and shame on you if you aren’t!) you’ll read a section on show, not tell. Show me your Female Main Character is tough, don’t just tell me she is.
This is so much harder than it sounds because you need to begin your character-building from page one and continue the building through the entire book.
Say your FMC is moving, and she drops a box on her foot. Or she’s hanging a picture and she slams her thumb with a hammer. She doesn’t cry. She’s tough. You’ve shown us she can hurt and not give in to tears.
That means nothing to the reader. We want to know why. Why is she tough?
Did her father beat her mother whenever she cried, so your FMC has trained herself not to cry? Maybe her father beat your FMC for being weak. (Gotta love some horrific backstory, right?)
This makes your character tough. Now we have a reason. How does that tie in with the story? Because it always has to tie in. Your characters’ traits need to blend into the internal conflict and external conflict.
Your characters’ traits are involved in your characters’ emotional growth. And your characters’ emotional growth is propelled forward by the plot.
Readers need the emotional arc to care and invest in your characters, their lives, and their problems.
Let’s have a quick example:
Felicity is starting a new life. She’s tough–life has made her that way. She grew up watching her father beat her mother. Her new apartment in a new city is a fresh start.
She clicks with a mover who delivers her new furniture. He has a temper, and after dating she realizes he has anger management issues. He reminds Felicity of her father. She gets scared of him, though he would never hurt her, or anyone, for that matter.
We have some fabulous internal conflict now:
- Felicity is tough on the outside, but as you write her backstory and weave it into the plot, we’ll see she’s actually vulnerable on the inside.
- The man she falls in love with brings her back to fearful and unhappy times.
- He loves her, but can’t control his rage enough to make her feel safe around him.
- She needs to learn that not every man she meets is like her father.
- He needs to learn he has to calm down and get help or they have no future.
This isn’t enough for a full plot, of course. Maybe someone is after her (she’s running from something/someone) and she has to trust him despite being scared of him.
Maybe he already knows who she is, and he was assigned to protect her–but he knows if he can’t control his temper, she won’t trust him and he won’t be able to do his job.
At any rate, we have reasons and backstory. (I focused on Felicity, but we see that our MMC has issues as well, and you could make up a fabulous backstory for him, too.) We have an explanation as to why they behave the way they do.
Your characters are people who have traits that have been cultivated by events in their lives.
For your reader, it’s not enough to make your FMC a bitch, or moody, or pissy. Readers need reasons tied to backstory and internal conflict, or all they have is an unlikeable main character.
Even your villains need reasons for being evil. Some of the best villains are characters readers feel sorry for, even relate to.
Jaime Lannister is a good example. Everyone despised him for pushing Bran out the window in A Song of Fire and Ice. But when his hand was cut off in A Storm of Swords, we almost feel sorry for him. And, possibly, everyone wanted a romantic relationship to develop between him and Brienne. Even though there wasn’t a character less deserving. (Oh, that was only me? Sorry. Must be my romantic coming out in me, again.)
Make your character a bitch, and all she is is a bitch. Make your character a bitch with reasons, feelings, and a desire to change, or she’ll lose what matters most, and you have internal conflict and a character growth arc.
The best books are both plot-driven and character-driven.
Readers want change–to go on a journey with your characters. They need internal/emotional growth while going with your characters from point A to point B.
Some of the writers I’ve read have the plot down, but haven’t yet perfected revealing backstory, explaining why the characters behave the way they do.
Sometimes this can be easily solved by getting to know your characters better. Spend time with them. What are their hopes, fears, ambitions, and flaws?
An author will have a difficult time introducing their characters if they don’t know who their own characters are. And if the writer doesn’t know, the reader sure as hell won’t.
Traits, negative or otherwise, does not a well-rounded character make.
For more tips on writing a well-rounded character check out WRITERS HELPING WRITERS®. The assortment of books for traits and emotions can go a long way to helping you figure out who your characters are and how to write them in a way readers can understand and empathize with.
Creating Character Arcs is another good book written by KM Weiland. Check out her blog here. She dishes out fantastic tips on writing, and I own all of her nonfiction books. Happy writing!