Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Pitfalls 2: Characters

Restrained Characters
For your story to ring true and hold your audiences’ interest, you must create well-rounded, believable characters who are expressive and evolve. Some submissions we’ve read approached characterization in limited ways. The following advice will help you reveal your characters’ personalities more so readers will connect with them better.

Character Confusion
One main couple and a few more minor characters integral to their relationship are enough for a short story. A large cast of extras who aren’t part of the plot will overwhelm readers. We’ll forget about ones who crop up seldom or appear just at the beginning and/or end. Give characters distinguishing names, appearances and personalities. You’ll confuse readers if you use such similar names as Rob, Rod and Ron or if multiple characters look or talk alike.

If you use an androgynous name, find an inconspicuous way to indicate if that character is male or female early. Also indicate each character’s age bracket if not exact number. Mentioning someone’s in college or has been working a certain number of years gives readers a general idea.

Not Introducing Characters
Find an appropriate way to introduce every character’s full name as he or she enters the story. Provide each person’s occupation or pertinent personal information early. Readers need to understand his or her function and relationship to others. But don’t state these facts like a narrator summarizing backstories. Work these details in subtly through thoughts and dialogue. Several stories I read had one or more characters who would have been confusing if I hadn’t already learned specifics from synopses. Make sure your story stands on its own without that summary.

In third person, don’t use “he,” “she” or “they” for the first reference in any scene. Establish the POV character by using that name first. After that, switch to “he” or “she” because this character wouldn’t refer to him or herself by name. Exception: Use the name as needed to differentiate between two characters of the same sex in the same scene. Don’t describe the POV character as “the handsome doctor” or “the voluptuous redhead” because he or she wouldn’t describe him or herself that way. Think as the POV character when you write his or her thoughts.

Introducing the POV character in first person can be awkward. I read some stories where I thought the unidentified “I” character was the opposite sex for several paragraphs or pages. That’s a basic fact readers need to know up front, so clear up that confusion. Don’t address readers by stating, “My name is ….” The POV character wouldn’t think that way. But he or she can make that type of introduction when meeting someone new. Or have someone else call the “I” character by name at the beginning. Otherwise, we’ll wonder who it is and if it’s male or female.

Limited Conflict
Without adequate conflict, your story won’t move forward, be interesting or keep readers wondering what will happen next. A tale that starts and ends with a happy couple on an even keel is a dull read. The two main characters need flaws and must grow as individuals before they can become a couple. Or they may be a former or current pair facing a challenge or crisis. Include some obstacle or conflict that keeps them apart and makes their future uncertain.

Your audience will keep reading to discover if they find love. Use the plot to overcome the dilemma or hindrance to bring them together by the end. You may opt for a tragic ending if their romance progressed before it.

Emotional Connection Missing
In every romance sub-genre including paranormal, the power of the heart helps fuel the main characters. That’s also one element that entices readers. But if you tell instead of show, your audience won’t develop an emotional connection with your characters. And we’ll think your couple doesn’t feel it either. So don’t report what characters do or let them rely on logic alone. Show us how they feel about what they and others do and say.

To make one-dimensional characters come to life, include heartfelt facial expressions, physical reactions and verbal responses. Don’t state that his touching words overwhelmed her with joy. Have her act that way (smile, sigh, hug or kiss him, say he made her feel special, etc.). When she reveals her innermost thoughts and emotions in her POV, readers feel them too. This also is true from the male’s perspective in his POV scenes.

Don’t let a character profess love or propose prematurely. Readers will feel cheated if you skip over the progression of a budding romance. If we haven’t seen their attraction grow into a serious relationship, we won’t believe this sudden leap forward. We need to feel and understand why they want to be together. If we don’t, we won’t care what happens to them. Readers want to get caught up in the gripping emotions along with the characters.

Think as the current POV character as you write. Go beyond describing what he or she sees and hears. Add tastes and smells in addition to how people and things feel to the touch. Make those details unique to each character. Then go deeper inward and delve into the POV character’s heart and mind. Flush out the characterization by using a wide range of senses for a richer, more personal and well-rounded portrayal. Readers will develop a personal investment in multi-dimensional characters who emote from within in dialogue, thoughts and actions.

What’s Next?
Practice the writing tips in this and my other blog posts. Keep checking the Cliffhanger Books website for announcements of selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.

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