First You Have to Care

copyright 2004 by Shirley Jump

I was interviewed recently by a radio host who asked me about the biggest lesson I had to learn when I went from writing non-fiction to fiction. At first, I talked about the usual things I had noticed—that I had to write more from the heart than the head when I’m doing fiction. That I had to invent, rather than interview. That I had less restrictions but more work to do. That I loved writing fiction far more than I had ever loved writing articles.

The host pushed a little further. “But what makes you so excited about writing fiction?”

My answer was simple. “Because I care what happens to my characters.”

Good fiction is based on characters the reader cares about. If the reader doesn’t care, she doesn’t finish the book.

Okay, that’s easily said. It’s not so easily done.

First, YOU have to care about your characters. You have to want to see their story to the end. I know, I can hear many of you saying you have characters you care about, yet you haven’t been able to sell that novel or short story. What’s the missing element?
Life. Your characters have to live on the page. They likely already live in your mind, which is why you care about them. However, you might not be translating those living, breathing people to the page. You care about them, but you’re keeping them a little too close to your heart. Here are my tips for creating people whom readers will latch onto:

Give them a past. Too often, authors forget to create characters who have physical and emotional pasts. The characters only exist in the current situation, and never seem to have ties to anything in the past. Remember that they grew up in a neighborhood, went through milestones, had relationships, both good and bad.
Give them a present. Surround your characters with other people who compliment them and help SHOW their character. Friends (i.e., secondary characters) are great for this. They can be used to show the opposite of your character (the outgoing, effusive friend will balance a cautious, introverted character) and to provide wisdom at crucial times.
Give them a future. You want your character to want something, to strive for something during the course of the book. It doesn’t have to be as big as “change the world,” but it should be something very important to your character, something that will change his/her world.
Give them something to do. Your characters need a job. A house. A world to interact in. I’ve seen manuscripts with wonderful dialogue, witty friends—and a hero who didn’t seem to have a purpose. He didn’t have a job that I could discern, a goal for the story or sometimes, even a home. All the great dialogue and repartee isn’t going to matter at all if the character doesn’t exist in a real world.
Give them a bit of you. Every one of my characters has a teeny part of me, I’ve realized. I think it’s part of the writing process. I liken it to giving birth—my children have some of my characteristics because they are a part of me, but they are individuals in their own right. When I do this with my characters, it helps me empathize with them and get into their heads.
Give them quirks and hobbies. Good characters aren’t one-dimensional, nor are they perfect. They need quirks, hobbies, favorite foods, superstitions. That’s what makes them real, and what makes them as alive as your next-door neighbor.
Give them strengths. You should be able to list at least six strengths your character has, from intelligence to spontaneity, or anything in between. These strengths, as I have mentioned in past columns, are what will get them OUT of trouble.
Give them weaknesses. On the other side of the coin are their weaknesses, which will get them INTO trouble. All of us have weaknesses, whether it’s an inability to make a quick decision or a tendency to think with our hearts instead of our heads. These weaknesses are what will make your character vulnerable, and create a lot of your plot events.
Give them a plot that matters. It’s not enough to care about the characters if the plot is flat, stale, and as retread as a twenty-year-old tire. Give the characters a story worth THEIR time and attention and it will thus, be worth the readers (I recommend both Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and Jack Bickham’s SCENE AND STRUCTURE to help you create a good plot).
First, you have to care. Then, after you care, you have to get to work. The beauty of this, however, is that when you care about your characters, you can’t wait to tell their story. Their story becomes a thing of your creation and that, my friends, is what fuels your passion for writing…something that inevitably will show in the work.

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