When you are plotting a story, there are two very important attributes your story must have in order to sell to an agent or editor or publisher, and to sell to readers. And in order to have these traits, they must first come from the characters—if your characters don’t have them, your story won’t.
The first attribute your characters and story must have is that they must be compelling. By definition, this means to persuade or force someone to do something. In fiction, this means the characters and story are so interesting they compel the reader to keep reading, to not want to stop, to just have to know what happens next. It has that “I couldn’t put it down” quality that grabs hold of the reader and won’t let go until the end.
The second thing your characters and story must have is that they must resonate. This is my favorite word when it comes to books because that is the single most important quality to me as an editor and as a reader. By this I mean the characters and situation have to be relatable, they have to have a quality that makes the reader feel as if they know them as if they can see something of themselves in the characters as if they recognize certain traits or habits or feelings and can commiserate with them. Even if they aren’t traits or habits the reader shares, or worlds the reader has ever lived in or dreamed about, they have to recognize the humanness of them—the characters have to feel and act and interact like real people.
Think of the movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks—there are very few people on the planet who have ever actually been stranded on a deserted island and lived to tell of it. However the actions of that character, his emotional journey coming to the realization he alone was responsible for his very survival, resonated within all of us. In any language, we as humans understand the will to survive. If done well, this resonance will stick with the reader later, will vibrate within them and ring true to them, long after the book is finished.
How many of you have heard an author say, “My characters just won’t shut up!” or the dreaded “I can’t get my characters to do what I want them to do!” Mostly likely, the author who made the first statement let the characters talk, let them move through the story naturally, and of course, the author just couldn’t type fast enough. The second statement was probably made by an author who didn’t listen to her characters, who didn’t pay attention to the type of scenario or plot needed for that character, who tried to make the character act in a way that was not natural to that character, and so they wouldn’t cooperate.
The first part of brainstorming any story is characters. If you are like many authors, you come up with the two main characters—the man and woman, or the two men if it’s an M/M story, or even the three main characters if it’s a ménage story or one with a prominent villain. And maybe you even already have one scene, maybe the beginning scene or the black moment scene, in mind. But you’ve also got to get into those characters’ heads, figure out who they are and what it is they want. You must build characters who are so real they actually tell you what is happening to them, they lead you to who they are into where they need to go in order to grow and deserve that beautiful happy ending you have waiting for them. Yes, you are going to torture the daylights out of them—that’s what authors do, and the more you love them, the more you will torture them. But it’s for their own good—they have to grow and learn and become who they are meant to be.
Think about the most memorable characters you’ve ever read about, the ones you’ve read about and carried their story with you afterwards. Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, or maybe Melanie. Forrest Gump or maybe you related better to Lieutenant Dan? Remember Mary Potter in Mackenzie’s Mountain? She was feisty and opinionated and inhibited, but her refusal to give up challenged Wolf at every turn and her joy in life, her earnestness, and her intense curiosity about life made Wolf, and you, care about her. And Wolf—yes he was sexy and strong, but he was also someone you wanted to see win. He’d been mistreated and put down by the community his entire life and his anger at the world was totally understandable, but you wanted him to be recognized for what a good man he actually was. Yet he still had to be tortured – he had to come to understand that some of his beliefs were hurting him, were setting him apart in ways he didn’t intend, and he needed to learn how to get along with the world without always assuming people hated him and interacting with them was not worth the effort. He had to see he was loveable. Both Mary and Wolf were compelling and relatable—we understood why they acted the way they did—relatable, and we found them interesting enough to keep reading to find out what happened to them—compelling.
And what is it that we find so compelling? What are these characters doing that we find so fascinating? They are going on an emotional journey. And we care about them and want to go along with them. And that journey, with its ups and downs, its rivers to cross and mountains to scale, is your book. How do you pick which journey to send them on? Well, you pick the journey most suitable for your characters, and something that’s important to you, something that inspires passion in you, and which you can use to inspire passion in the reader. And pick something that will totally knock your character out of their easy chair and right into the hot seat. Have a male character who is a free and easy bachelor, a “player” type? Drop him into a house raising a popular teenage girl because a friend or relative died and left him guardian, and have him sweating it out while guys like him take her on dates. Have a male character who is a loner, maybe an orphan hard-scrabble background, trusts no one? Have him fall in love with a woman who has tons of family and kids and very deep roots, where he has to fit in, to learn to trust and deal with his emotions.
Then, pick your external conflict, and make it something that illuminates the issue, perhaps forces the characters in a way they don’t want to go, but which will teach them things they need to learn on their emotional journey.
Pick a setting that enhances the issue, maybe dump a city bachelor into the country, takes the rich girl’s money and makeup away, make a rich playboy fall in love with a nobody, toss that alpha male cop into a dangerous situation with only a bossy female defense attorney for help. Then pick a cast of characters who will push the characters along in the way they need to go.
But remember—learn who your characters are first—knowing them inside and out will give you the information you need to write their story. And remember those two key words—compelling and resonating—with those qualities as your keystone, you can’t go wrong.
GeorgiaThis article was first published on:
This article was first published on: 1st of August 2013
Georgia Woods was born and raised a Southern girl, and still loves the South with its history and tradition and manners. She loves Southern cooking, playing pool, boiled peanuts, fishing and hunting, fast cars, and slow dancing barefoot in the dark. She lives with her ex-military husband, who is her best friend and the love of her life even if he is one of those grumpy alpha types.
Owner, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of Taliesin Publishing, Georgia has been a leader in the eBook industry for nine years, guiding and encouraging up and coming romance writers.