Hi, I’m Sandy Vaile, a motorbike-riding daredevil suspense-writer, who thought I knew what getting into character meant, until I had a revelation.
It’s not enough to fall in love with our characters, to know everything about their backstory, hopes for the future, and desires. The really important thing is to make readers love them just as much, which is all about how we show them on the page.
Dig deep to learn more about your characters than hair and eye colour. Find out what drives them, deep down in their soul. In a place where no-one else has seen. Where their deepest fears and regrets and shame lives.
More than a character profile, you need a psychological profile, so you can exploit the traumas in their backstory to drive the frontstory in a meaningful way. These blemishes/weaknesses are the things that make the reader sympathise with the character’s struggle, because it makes them authentic and individual. Internal conflicts may result in trust issues, anxiety, low self-confidence, self-destructive tendencies, or Everyone struggles with situations that are outside of their control to a point, and others that are born of our own insecurities. We can relate to those struggles and want characters who are also struggling, to succeed, even where we may have failed.
The vast majority of main characters are also ambitious, which makes it easy for readers to root for them. They may have a strong desire to succeed, be determined, enterprising in their pursuit of their goal, and turn out to be a formidable opponent to the antagonist.
A fabulous example of a character you can root for is Robin Hood. He’s an outlaw, but we don’t see him as bad, because he’s not driven selfishness. He is a champion of common folks who can’t help themselves.
Getting into your character’s head
It’s important to know your character will think, feel and act in any given situation. When writing each scene, think about where she came from, where she’s going, who has influenced her, and what she wants at this moment.
To fully understand the nuances of how each character sees the world differently, it helps to do this exercise. Picture your main character in a particular awkward situation and location (it doesn’t have to be something you’ll actually use in your book), e.g. Anne sipping coffee in her local café, when her ex walks past with his new fiancé.
Anne might view the situation through the bitterness of his betrayal with this other woman, her hatred for the woman stealing him away, the self-doubt that comes with feeling she wasn’t enough to keep him, etc. She might be embarrassed that other locals in the café know the details of their history and are all waiting for a confrontation, or pitying her.
Now write the same scene from the perspective of the ex-boyfriend. He’s might think how amazing Anne looks without all the effort his new fiancé spends on appearance, or worried that Anne is going to make a scene, or tense about how his fiancé is going to react to Anne, or maybe he barely gives her a thought, because he’s preparing for an important business meeting.
Take it one step further and write the scene from the new fiancé’s perspective. How does she view the situation, what are her reservations?
Or you could even try writing from the perspective of the waitress, or town gossip. Each character will say and do different things, because they view the world differently, have had different experiences, and expectations. A seamstress might notice the crooked seam on the curtains, a baker would notice the colour of the icing on the cupcakes in the display cabinet, a gardener would marvel at the delicate blooms on the window sill. See what I mean?
Remember that your characters are likely to have their own speech patterns, phobias, ideas about social etiquette, etc. All of these things will add layers to your character, but their flaws especially will help readers relate to and sympathise with them.
Don’t Forget Secondary Characters
It’s easy to spend all your time developing the main character, but don’t forget to delve deep into your secondary characters, particularly the antagonist and love interest. They can often be so interesting that you end up giving them their own story later on.
Secondary characters not only populate your story world, but have key roles to play in helping or hindering the main character’s journey, so think about what is driving them to behave the way they do. They’re not being difficult for no reason, but because they want something, or believe something. The antagonist isn’t just a horrible person, she believes she’s acting for the right reasons too.
On The Page
By having a clear picture of who each of your characters are in your mind (at their gooey centre, not just the sugar-coated outside), it’s easier to infuse their characteristics into everything they do and say.
“Shawshank Redemption” is a great example of a character-driven story. Andy’s only desire is to maintain his humanity by not giving in to the pressures that our outside of his control in the prison. He doesn’t even have the hope of parole.
On the page, you can reveal additional layers to your character, and therefore give readers a deeper understanding of them, through their actions and dialogue. Just as we don’t always do what we say, your characters’ actions will divulge more about their true self than what they say. Use body language, personal habits and quirks to expose the truth.
Dialogue is another opportunity to reveal more than is actually being said, e.g. a character’s tone of voice hints at their emotions, their accent at where they’re from. Here’s an example of dialogue from my latest book, “Combatting Fear”, which hints at something happening to Neve that she’s not keen to tell her father.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m thirty-two years old and I’m home safe, Tony. I need to go out now and then.”
He sighed. “Sorry, love. I worry, that’s all. Did you have a nice time?”
“Yeah, they serve a mean schnitzel at the pub.”
“Hey” ⎯ Tony brushed a fingertip across her cheekbone ⎯“ what happened here?”
Bugger, I forgot about that. “I walked into a low branch at the back of the kindy, that’s all.”
He frowned and studied her for a long moment, as though trying to use a Jedi mind trick to extract the truth. “How’s Bronwyn?”
“Umm, she’s good.”
“Smells like she started wearing men’s cologne.”
Getting the reader to love your characters as much as you do, is all about weaving a character’s senses and emotions through the narrative. By inviting your reader right into the minds and hearts of your characters, you will allow them to experience the hopes and fears, exhilarating first kisses and heart-wrenching losses. For a little while, the reader will be completely immersed in the story, and remember it long after he/she puts the book down.
To delve into the depths of your character, and for tips about how to reveal them to the reader, check out my “Appetising Characters You Can Sink Your Teeth Into” workshop starting on 18th June 2018.
Mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, Neve Botticelli, leads a double life. At home with her paranoid father, she is a combat trained survivalist who lives off-the-grid.
When self-made billionaire, Micah Kincaid, storms into town in search of his four-year-old son, Rowan, he’s pushy, entitled, and stands for everything Neve despises.
But something far more sinister than a cheating estranged wife, is lurking in rural Turners Gully, and it has its sights set on little Rowan’s inheritance. It turns out there is one thing Micah and Neve can agree on, and that’s keeping Rowan safe.
As they work together to free Rowan, they glimpse beneath one another’s guises, and realise that falling in love could be even more dangerous than hunting deadly criminals.