Posted by Shelley Noble on Saturday, July 7, 2012 Under: Guest Posts
Please welcome our special guest today, multi-published novelist Shelley Noble. In this fast-paced post, Shelley shows us five key ways to make our characters dynamic and unique. Shelley packs in a lot here, just as a good story does. This is a rapid-fire master class!
Give them a Past with a capital P. Make it Traumatic, Dangerous, Ridiculous, Secret...
Then don’t tell us about it. Make us guess, wonder, surmise about what happened before that put them where they are now. Feed Backstory into your story in drips and drabs - so gently that if the reader blinks, he might miss it. But make it interesting enough that he won’t blink.
What does your protagonist want?
To solve the crime, get the girl, overcome obstacles to find new meaning in his/her life? Those are givens. (Just follow the plot from A to Z...)
But what does your character Really want?
What is she/he willing to sacrifice everything for and will do anything to achieve? This is the character’s arc. Every major character needs one. This is what readers care about.
Like Backstory, reveal that arc gently. Mete out their desire in small doses. It isn’t necessary to explain it all at once. Have your protagonist act in such a way that the reader goes “aha, that’s what’s really driving him/her.”
But (I hear you say) I write comedy. Or chick lit or . . .
Not all stories are intense or tragic. Even so, you can’t have a character yucking it up for 400 pages. There have to be tender moments, indecisive moments, angry moments. You want your reader to care about these people, to get involved with them, to believe they’re real.
Tell us just a little, let us infer the rest.
Give a description early on, so the reader doesn’t imagine a tall red head and find out on page 67 that she’s really petite with dark hair. It’s so tempting to dump a whole paragraph of physical description at once: hair and eye color, height, build, skin tone, clothes, and get it over with. Watch your reader’s eyes glaze over.
Description isn’t an equal opportunity visual.
In reality when you meet someone you don’t stop the action and make a laundry list: woman, young, 5’6”, blonde hair, blue eyes, long polished fingernails, designer cocktail dress, four inch heels. After an initial impression, we begin picking out pertinent details, not all the details.
Describe that character through the POV character’s eyes. What’s important to him? What does he see first?
A Tip: Men and women tend to notice different attributes in a different order, according to what’s important to them.
Emotions don’t have to be larger than life. They have to be real. Just because two characters scream at each other for half the book does not make it an interesting fight. Emotions have to be motivated by reasons that make the reader care. The narrative needs to ebb and flow. Use emotion subtly. Draw us in, don’t beat us over the head.
Like in poker or police work, a ‘Tell’ is one way that characters reveal their thoughts. For example, every time Joe has a full house he scratches behind his ear. That’s a ‘tell’, a giveaway. Now everyone can’t have a tell, or it gets silly. But characters need to act in ways that are indicative of who and what they are. They have quirks, twitches, speech patterns, ya know?
Beware: A smidgeon of this goes a long way.
Now to Integrate these elements.
Let’s take the woman in the expensive cocktail dress. Most of the women in the room are wearing expensive cocktail dresses. Why does she stand out?
Attach the Description to the character’s uniqueness, to their Desire, their Backstory, and make us curious about them while you’re describing their physical appearance. Make your POV character curious too.
For example, the cocktail dress is expensive, red, she looks like a million bucks. And then, he notices a price tag showing under her arm. Suddenly she steps away from all the other expensively dressed, beautiful women in the story. She looks the part, so why the tag? Is she broke? Is she a fake?
Suddenly we want to know her story, because the price tag cuts her out from the herd.
Let’s take it a step further.
In this scene, the dress is expensive, red, but no price tag. The woman is beautiful, poised, she belongs. She’s in danger of becoming a stereotype.
He offers her a glass of champagne. She reaches for it. He notices the long, elegant fingers, the perfectly shaped nails, the immaculate red nail polish, except one tip has popped off, leaving a ragged, pale nail, a torn cuticle.
Suddenly Ms Cookie-cutter becomes interesting. Her life is not what it seems and - depending on what genre you’re writing - you can develop the other facets of the character off this one feature.
Now add some Emotion to this scene. Is he disgusted, curious, cynically amused? Is she aware that her nail’s broken? Does she try to hide it from view? Is she embarrassed? Angry? Does she laugh it off, but he sees that beneath the laughter is fear?
Let's say she panics and flees the room. He goes after her, pulls her onto the terrace. She’s broken the heel of her four inch heels. Wait, you haven’t mentioned the heels before. That’s okay. He notices them now.
During this simple little scene we’ve used Description, Desire, Emotion. Just from her reactions we know she has Backstory, maybe her Tell is that she always wears red when she’s planning to kill a man. We’re willing to wait to find out.
Now we know a lot more about her and the story than we could ever get from the first ‘laundry list’ description. Integration is the key to getting your characters and your story off and running.
And you’ll have a story!
Shelley Noble is a multi published fiction author whose books have been translated into seven languages. She writes women’s fiction as Shelley Noble and is also the author of several amateur sleuth mystery series, written as Shelley Freydont.
A former professional dancer and choreographer, she most recently worked on the films, Mona Lisa Smile and The Game Plan. She also consults on various dance and theatre projects, most recently the world premiere of a full length Tom Sawyer ballet commissioned by Kansas City Ballet. Shelley is a member of Sisters-in-Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Liberty States Fiction Writers.
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