For readers to enjoy your book, it is most important that your characters and their behaviours are believable. I remember in my early efforts at writing, I created good characters who did everything right, and bad characters who did everything wrong. It was really hard for me to give my good characters any flaws, or to give the bad guy credit for doing anything right or having any redeeming qualities.
It took a lot of rewriting to shape believable characters for my first novel. But trust me, it gets easier. Think of any person you know and like a lot. Are they really perfect? Just because we easily forgive their shortcomings, doesn’t mean they are perfect and have no flaws. We just like to bury those flaws. Look hard and you will find a flaw that your character might have which the reader will forgive, but which also makes the character more human.
The same goes for someone we may not like. If we took the time to get to know them, we would have to admit that they’re not ALL bad. Give your antagonist some redeeming quality. You’ll be surprised how the reader will then care about what happens to him, or at least feel some empathy for his situation.
Using these flaws effectively can help enrich your novel and make it easier for your readers to believe what your characters do, and it enhances our emotional involvement with those characters. If we don’t care about the characters, why bother to read the book?
So we have to know our characters if we are to tell their story. We need to know their long-term goals and their short-term goals. We don’t want the reader to wonder, “Why would he do a thing like that?”
In building the background for the character’s motivation, we might work in some family background, some incidental things that help the reader understand why the character would react the way he does as the story develops. Short flashbacks can lay the groundwork for what has shaped the character’s emotional growth, his attitudes, and his ways of dealing with situations that will come up in your plot.
How else do readers learn about the characters?
- The author can simply tell about the character. This is probably the easiest way but not necessarily the most convincing.
- Have the character tell about himself.
- Have another character tell about him. (This way is more believable.)
- Show what the character is like by his actions.
All of these methods can be used, but the last one is probably the most effective and the most believable.
If you take the time to find stronger verbs when the character is doing anything, you can often come up with something that more precisely describes how the character behaves. Does he stand or does he slouch? Does he limp? If so, why? Does he move erratically or are his movements smooth? Find the verb that accurately describes this.
For every action the character does, consider whether the verb you use is the best one to describe his particular way of doing things.
You can show the character’s emotions using physical descriptions (sweat beading on his forehead, slumped shoulders, furrows in the forehead).
Another way is to show some action that tells how he might be feeling. Is he drumming is fingers, sighing heavily, flexing his jaw muscles, squinting or rolling his eyes, waggling his head, lifting his chin, biting his lower lip?
What a person says and how he says it can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and about what kind of person they are. This is a huge topic and I would like to deal with that in a separate post.
Meanwhile, study the people around you and make a note of their flaws and their redeeming qualities. You’ll be surprised how useful these can be when you incorporate them in your writing.