I’ve heard it said that commercial fiction is plot driven, while literary fiction is character driven.
Good fiction, I believe, needs to be driven both by plot and character.
A novel or short story fails without fleshed-out characters that readers empathize with and view as real.
These characters have to do something. They have to have goals or desires and to face obstacles that block the path to what they want.
Otherwise, why read a book that rambles, even if the language is beautiful.
To give a character substance, begin by identifying her (I use the “she” pronoun because my main characters tend to be female) basic identity. What does she want? What is she afraid of? How do the people around her see her as a person? Do they like or dislike her?
Here’s a few things I’ve learned about adding depth to a character:
- Give her a secret – an inclination, trait or a part of her history that she doesn’t want anybody to know about. If revealed, her secret, which is what she has to lose, would change her standing in her world and make her less desirable as a friend, neighbor or coworker.
- Add a lovable quirk, such as laughing at inappropriate things or giggling in church.
- Try a nervous gesture, such as biting her lip or pulling on her hair.
- Play with an idiosyncrasy, such as a nervous gesture or repetitive behavior.
- Give her a contradiction to make her unpredictable, such as someone who is shy but rude or is brash but sensitive.
These twists of characterization set the stage for surprising behavior that keeps readers turning the page.
Whatever you do, give your main character a minor flaw, so that she is more likable to readers, who don’t want to read about someone who is 100 percent perfect and, thus, boring.
Whatever her qualities, the character cannot be static. She needs to change as a result of the experiences she undergoes through the course of the novel.
This change is what gives the story direction and meaning.
Note: As I blog about different writing topics, I occasionally will add in a suggested exercise. This week, think of someone you know and try to describe them, using some of the items from the bullet list.