3 Ways to Write Good Characters

What makes a reader relate to your book? Why would someone choose it over all the other offerings on the “New Novels” table  at Barnes and Noble? I used to think it had something to do with the situation in which the lady on the cover found herself: Mindy is adorable….and she only has 30 days to live! Mike’s fighter plane is going down in a remote part of Afghanistan…can he save himself in time?   It’s the Telenovela method: If you put a character in an ugly bind, it doesn’t matter what his or her personality is like.  The book will sell. Or at least that’s what I believed. Then I started working on my novel every day, and I  realized that even I was getting lost in my own plot’s endless twists and turns.

I’m not naive. I know that there has to be a tangible sense of danger, excitement or novelty on a book’s back flap to get someone to pick it up, especially if the author is not widely known. But there are also many other subtle cues that help a reader decide whether a story, or a character, is something worth investing in. A few concepts research shows can hook a reader in seconds:

Establish Your Perspective

Studies show that key stylistic choices reveal intended audience. Are you writing a female character you want women to relate to intimately? Make sure to include a lot of specific details to that show her emotions during a scene. How does she feel about the  house she’s about to break into? Or the job she’s about to leave? Including a few words on a character’s perspective in your outline can also help you to remember to stay as close to your character as you are to your plot. Even if you are writing a hard-boiled thriller and keeping description to a minimum, staying close to your character’s movements and moment-to-moment decisions will make the reader feel as if he were in the scene too.

Amplify your Genre

A reader may be hankering for a romance or a western, but she’s never in the mood to read the same story twice. Regardless of how familiar a setting or plot line may be, readers love to feel like they are getting to know a new, endearingly quirky character, one they may want to visit for a sequel. Conceiving a character whose inner failings or strengths enhance a genre’s conflict is a great way to go. In Shirley Jackson’s classic thriller “The Haunting of Hill House,” Eleanor Vance’s bitter loneliness has engaged more readers and film directors in the decades since it was published than the house’s famed creepiness.

Create a Character Chart

As a published author, once you’ve completed a manuscript, you probably feel like the time for writer’s workshop-style exercises are over. It’s time to just pound out the pages and get it over with, right? That may be the case for a lot of folks, but for me, there’s one Writing 101 trick  that has proven invaluable. Years ago, a friend emailed me an exercise from a workshop she had just attended: a personality spreadsheet, with more than 50 questions detailing the minutiae of a character’s life. At first, I was dismissive. It seemed like a complete waste of time. Plus, who cared? I figured I’d  never get through chapter one if I loaded the reader down with so many details. But, once I got through it, I realized that even if half of the preferences and other facts about my character didn’t make it into the book, it was still helpful to have it done. Just knowing what my character will and will not do has gotten me through some major writer’s block.

What tricks have helped you develop your characters? Any other tips you want to share here?