In fiction writing, there’s an old argument among authors. Some authors believe that the plot is everything; while others believe that the plot is immaterial — fiction begins and ends with fictional characters.
If you’re unhappy with your fiction — your characters haven’t “come alive” — chances are that you’ve been pushing them around. You’re too focused on your plot.
Let’s look at some fiction writing tips which will help you to build great characters, and a wonderful plot.
Characters in fiction writing: two essentials for each character
New authors imagine that to create a character, you need to know everything about him: his shoe size, for example. Or whether or not he likes anchovies on his pizza.
To create a character who has the potential to be wonderful, you only need to know two things:
- What he wants. What’s his heart’s desire — what will he sacrifice for?
- What internal obstacle stops him getting what he wants?
Now let’s look at three tips to help you to build great characters who will grow your plot for you.
1. To create a character, start with an attribute to create an internal obstacle
In Craft Fictional Characters For NaNoWriMo: 3 Tips, we said:
I know some authors like to create page upon page of character bios, and that’s fine — although it’s never worked for me. I like to start with the basics, a fictional character’s name, his age, his profession, and his primary attribute.
Let’s say that we’re writing a cozy mystery, and we want to create a quirky sleuth. Without bending our brain, we decide on:
* Name: Mara Mason, age 26
* Profession: widow, who works from home, as a virtual assistant;
* Primary attribute: intense curiosity.
You can create a character within moments, as you can see. Mara’s primary attribute is curiosity, an essential for a sleuth. It’s also a double-edged sword, and this attribute helps you to create external obstacles for Mara.
Recall however that we also need Mara’s heart’s desire, and an internal obstacle which stops her getting what she wants.
Let’s say that Mara’s heart’s desire is a family of her own. Her parents died when she was young, and she lived in a long succession of foster homes. She wants what she never had. What’s the internal obstacle? It’s a lack of trust. Mara can’t trust anyone enough to reveal herself and build close relationships.
Vital: your character will usually be totally unaware that he has an internal obstacle which stops him getting what he wants. He may also be unaware of what he mostly deeply desires.
Although Mara may be unaware that she has problems with trust, and unaware that she longs for a family, you as the author are completely aware. You use this knowledge to build your plot.
Similarly with other major characters in your novel. You need to know what they most want, and what stops them getting that.
2. Once you know the internal obstacle, build your character’s backstory to explain it
Our backstory explanation of Mara’s trust issues is: orphan, foster homes.
However, if you want to write a novel which is a page-turner, keep 95% of the backstory out of your novel.
As we said in: Fiction Tips: Kill Your Backstory,
Your explanations are backstory. You need to know the backstory, but your reader doesn’t. You may have heard that you should start slotting backstory into your novel after the setup, somewhere after the first few chapters. This can work, but honestly? It still bogs down the story. You want readers to keep reading, so only tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it.
Backstory is a killer, especially for new novelists. I’m currently reading The Night Manager, by John Le Carré. He’s amazing. I love the way he handles backstory, but he’s an expert. Until you have Le Carré’s skill, avoid dumping backstory into your novel.
Instead, hint at the backstory. For example, perhaps Mara has a garden rock on her desk. She took the rock from the garden of the one foster home in which she was completely happy.
You can keep readers wondering: why is that simple rock so important to Mara? Keep them wondering, until you reveal its importance to Mara.
When you limit your revelations of backstory like this, you’ll write a more exciting novel, because you’re involving readers.
3. Develop your plot: your plot is the resolution of your main characters’ internal and external obstacles, in SCENES
You need to know the heart’s desire of all your main characters, as well as their internal obstacles. You SHOW the desires, and the external and internal obstacles in scenes.
We covered how to set a scene in Write Hot Scenes For Bestselling Fiction: 5 Magical Tips:
Character goals lead to: action, conflict, suspense… DRAMA
It’s often easier to study scenes while watching a movie. There’s less chance you’ll get lost in the words. So watch a movie, with a pen and paper. Pause the action when a scene ends, and replay the scene. Analyze it.
When you focus on your characters’ internal and external obstacles, you’ll automatically build a good plot, scene by scene, because you’re focused on your characters.
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