Character creation is my absolute favorite part of writing to talk about. Conveniently, I also believe it to be the most important. I’ll explain why here in just a minute, but suffice it to say that I feel character trumps all.
Which is why I’ve decided to create a mini-series for you on character development. Over the next few days, we’ll explore in thorough detail all the imperatives for creating characters that stick with readers. But for today, let’s take a moment to talk about why character matters, and why I just can’t seem to shut up about it.
Why Character Development Matters
Most writers will tell you that there are two types of stories: plot driven stories and character driven stories.
Stories are considered plot driven if their story arcs are driven by the action. In other words, events happen in the story that push the character along.
Likewise, a story is considered character driven when the story arc is driven by the protagonist (or hero), meaning the protagonist’s choices determine what happens next.
Sometimes you may hear this idea referred to as a commercial novel or a literary novel, with so-called “commercial” fiction believed to be plot driven and “literary” fiction believed to be character driven.
But is there really a difference between a character driven novel and a plot driven novel? I would argue no. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that “plot driven” novels don’t exist. At least, not good ones.
As readers, we don’t connect to plot lines; we connect to character arcs. In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway states,
“Your fiction can be only as successful as the characters who move it and move within it. Whether they are drawn from life or are pure fantasy—and all fictional characters lie somewhere between the two—we must find them interesting, we must find them believable, and we must care about what happens to them.” 1
And in Save the Cat Writes a Novel, author Jessica Brody states,
“We turn to story to watch characters fix their problems, better their lives, and improve upon their flaws. Great novels take deeply imperfect characters and make them a little less imperfect.” 2
In fact, virtually any writing text you pick up that focuses on outlining or story structure will flat out tell you that a strong story arc starts with a flawed character and follows that character through a series of obstacles that, ultimately, change the character.
Perhaps Lisa Cron explains it best in her book Story Genius when she explains how plot only exists in relation to the hero it affects. States Cron:
“The story and the plot are two very different things. The story comes first, and it is born of one person, and one person only: the protagonist. Everyone and everything else will be created to serve his or her story. A novel’s power depends on how deeply you dive into your protagonist–that’s what will bring your plot into being and give it life. So rather than asking who will run through your novel’s preordained gauntlet of challenge, the goal is to figure out who you’ll build that gauntlet to test.” 3
Bottom line? If the character doesn’t change, the story doesn’t resonate. So you’d best start looking at character.
What Makes a Character Memorable
If characters are the bread and butter of good fiction, then it stands to reason that the key to making stories memorable is to make their characters memorable.
I want you to take a moment and think about the characters that have stuck with you over time. Characters that have resonated with you, that you’ve thought about long after the last page of their story. What do they have in common? What made them echo deep within your memory?
For ease of argument, I’ll share three of my all-time favorite characters with you. I’m sure it will come as no shock that all three come from YA fantasy novels, and all three are bad-ass ladies.
Alanna of Trebond
First up is my all-time favorite heroine, Alanna of Trebond. From Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet, Alanna has been with me since the third grade. She’s the first character I reach for whenever I need an escape. Don’t believe me? There’s photo evidence of me sequestered in a corner on my wedding day, nose-deep in Alanna: The First Adventure.
Now, if you weren’t a total feminist fantasy nerd growing up, here’s what you need to know about Alanna. In the first pages of the novel, Alanna disguises herself as a boy so she can train at the palace to become a knight. She is strongly “gifted” with magic but totally afraid of her abilities. She always does what is right over what the rules declare good, she is utterly loyal to her friends and her liege, and utterly frustrated with the challenges of womanhood that keep cropping up no matter how hard she tries to outrun them.
Next we have Sophie Hatter from Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. At the beginning of the book, Sophie has completely accepted that it is her lot to live an ordinary, boring life. She’s the oldest of three sisters–that’s just the way things are meant to be. Sophie is timid, and terrified of the infamous Wizard Howl who is rumored to eat the hearts of young women.
All of this changes, of course, when she accidentally crosses the Witch of the Waste, who promptly turns her into an old woman. Throughout her journey, Sophie completely embraces her new identity, allowing her true strength and fortitude to shine through her unfortunate disguise. She proves to be curious and inventive and will stop at nothing to get the ending she deserves.
Finally, we have Briony Larkin from Franny Billingsley’s Chime (and so long as we’re on the subject, if you haven’t read Chime yet, do it. Billingsley’s story building in this novel is insanely good and makes for an awesome craft study).
Briony’s character is totally frank and upfront, which is made all the more incredible when you realize she is an unreliable narrator. Her voice is beautifully crafted with this eerie, poetic sense to it that resonates so well with the setting of the novel. In fact, the swampy setting and Briony actually become interconnected, creating a crazy pull between the two. Briony is deeply protective of her sister and extremely harsh on her own self.
What Do Memorable Characters Have in Common
So what do all of these characters have in common? Well, for starters, they’re all strong (and I don’t just mean physically).
Donald Maass states in his book The Breakout Novelist that:
“Virtually all readers consciously seek out novels for an experience of human life that is admirable, amusing, hopeful, perseverant, positive, inspiring and that ultimately makes us feel whole.” 4
All three of these characters have perseverance in spades.
What’s more, that inner strength is in the face of deep insecurities and wounds. Briony, for example, has a horrible guilt haunting her from her childhood that has forever shaped her perception of herself, and Alanna is certain that if she ever reveals her true self, no one will accept her—not even her friends.
“Struggle is far more compelling than satisfaction. I’m talking about inner conflicts, those seemingly contradictory sides of people that make them endlessly interesting to think about… Adding aspects of character that cannot easily be reconciled will ensure that your character cannot easily be dismissed.” 5
Look, I don’t know what three characters you chose, but I’d bet my last penny that every one of them went through an inner journey of discovery throughout the course of their respective novels–one spurred by their individual insecurities and wounds.
Next, each of these characters possesses a great wit. They are smart and dry and lay down one-liners like nobody’s business. They do and say all the things I’ve never had the guts to do or say myself.
Readers like to live vicariously through their characters, and it’s that much easier to fall in love with a character that allows them to experience that reality.
Finally, each of these characters is imperfect with fatal flaws keeping them from their happiness. Despite this, these characters never stop chasing their goals. It’s this combination of flaws and motivation that creates the perfect recipe for a strong character arc—one in which the character must grow and change to finally achieve her happy ending.
How to Make Your Own Characters Memorable
So how do we develop those qualities in our own characters? Well, friend, you’re in the right place. Over a series of five posts, we’re going to deep-dive into the ins-and-outs of creating characters that readers won’t want to let go.
By the end of this series, you will know how to:
- Create character flaws that drive your story’s action
- Give your protagonist a goal that matters
- Create authentic, character driven action through reactive writing
- Analyze your scenes for effective character development
Ready to Dive In?
The next installment is available now! But before you move on, be sure and drop your top three most memorable characters in the comments below.