Characters that fail to engage are among the most common reasons that books are rejected or poorly received. What are your characters hiding from you? What are they hiding from themselves? Learn to develop compelling, multi-faceted characters and you’ll captivate readers.
From a recent workshop I taught on character development, here are three exercises that can help breathe life into characters that haven’t yet come into their own:
· Interview your character, allow him or her to answer in voice. Start with three easy warm-up questions, such as where the character grew up or her favorite color. Then ask at least three harder questions: What are you keeping secret from your creator? (The creator, of course, is you, the author) In what way is your creator not being fair to you? What do you think about your capacity for love? For examples of insightful questions plus answers in voice, check out the Paris Review interviews with your favorite authors.
· Make a Johari window for your character. I make these on index cards, with the traits in pencil so I can change them and move them from pane to pane as my characters reveal more of themselves on the page.
· As suggested by literary agent Donald Maass, answer these questions about the connection between you and your main character: Why are you writing this story? How does it connect to you? What in your protagonist’s experience parallels your own? What need is most like yours? What fear is closest to your own darkest dread? What decision has an impossible cost, a cost you’ve paid yourself? When in the story could you be sitting in your protagonist’s place? Why there and then?
Always to be generous with your characters. Don’t lock them in. Allow them their complexities and contradictions, as long as they’re believable within the context. Allow their development to happen in layers, aided by the insights of good readers and editors.