Delilah S. Dawson is the author of the steampunk paranormal romance Blud series from Pocket including three books, three e-novellas, and a short story in the Carniepunk anthology. Her first YA, a creepy paranormal about demons and Savannah called Servants of the Storm, is out in 2014. Find her online at www.delilahsdawson.com and on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson.
I’ll admit it: for a long time, writing strong characters was one of my weaknesses. The idea of a world would take hold, but my protagonist was a cardboard cut-out, an anyperson, a stand-in for the reader’s perspective. I was too scared to let the lead character make the wrong decision or say something that I didn’t believe. I’m pretty sure that’s why two of my books went on submission but didn’t sell, and I learned a valuable lesson:
Character trumps plot.
But what happens if you already have a book written or are halfway into a draft when you realize that your characters aren’t strong enough to draw the reader in and keep them reading? For me, the answer is retrofitting. Basically, writing the book and then deciding how to make the characters more interesting in ways that will make the plot more exciting and contribute to the overall story arc.
Let’s say you have a first draft about John, who discovers he’s a werewolf and has to fight the king of the vampires to secure the freedom of his ladylove, a mermaid. You have world-building, an exciting plot, and the major players nailed down. But something’s missing, and it’s great characters. John is a Reluctant Hero. Lord Vamp is The Villain. Meredith Mermaid is a Damsel in Distress; all cardboard cut-outs. But they have to be real people with hopes, fears, dreams, peccadillos, catch-phrases, memories.
Start with the hero, John. What’s his greatest fear? Let’s decide it’s water. He fell into a rushing stream as a kid while trying to save a kitten, and now he’s scared of water. That’s great, because if his lady love is a mermaid, he’ll probably have to deal with water, maybe leap into the ocean to save her. And Lord Vamp can use it against him. We also know that John is the kind of guy who would leap into a stream to save kittens, which means we like him more. And he’s a new werewolf, so maybe he’s sensitive about having overly pointy teeth, so he’ll have a nervous habit of picking his teeth with a toothpick and smiling with his lips closed. Yeah, he’s a kind of nervous guy. Which goes against the big, strong, alpha-male werewolf thing, so maybe he’s lower in the pack and wants to prove himself.
See where we’re going with this exercise? You want to avoid cliches and make your characters leap off the page, and that can be a lot easier when you know how your story is going to go and how they’ll be challenged later on.
When you get to the villain, it’s important to remember that every villain thinks he’s the hero of the story. Nobody wakes up and thinks, “I’m going to do bad things today.” They’re usually obsessed with something they need and feel they deserve, whether it’s power, recognition, love, or something else. Maybe Lord Vamp is also in love with Meredith and they have a complicated history. Or maybe he knows that Meredith possesses a necklace that once belonged to a vampire queen and can cure Lord Vamp of his vampirism so that he can see the sunlight again. Maybe his father was killed by a werewolf, and he thinks all werewolves are jerky alpha males. Whatever he’s doing, he believes he’s in the right.
And let’s not forget that Meredith is more than a damsel in distress. She needs to have qualities that would make John fall in love with her—maybe she saved him from that rushing stream when he was trying to save that kitten. Maybe she’s an underwater scientist working on a cure for werewolfism or maybe, until she met John, she campaigned against werewolves because they eat too many kittens. In any case, we need to understand why she would like John and detest Lord Vamp. And there must also be impediments to her love with John or the book would be three pages long. She needs to do something besides sit in an aquarium and pout.
If you’re not quite sure what your characters are like, a fun way to work through it is to find a character sheet online with dozens of questions and fill it out off the top of your head. What’s her favorite food, what’s her earliest memory, what would she do in a broken elevator, what would she do if she saw an old woman about to walk into busy traffic? The more you feel you know about a character, the better you can decide what would motivate them, which means you know why they would act the way they do and what they would say. It’s easy to write cardboard cut-outs and put words into their mouths, but the greatest characters in books, the ones that stick with us through the ages, are so real that we feel we actually know them.
If you’re not there yet, don’t lose hope. No matter how finished you think a book might be, after you’ve put your characters through the ringer, you’ll find new ways to tweak what they do or say to make them more well-rounded. As you go back through your last draft, you’ll see dialog go from:
Meredith stared at him. “Thanks for rescuing me,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he answered with a grin.
Meredith gazed at John with the same awe she remembered seeing in his eyes that winter day, twenty years ago, when she’d pulled him from the freezing stream. “Looks like you’re the knight in shining armor this time,” she said.
John grinned, for once forgetting to hide his canine teeth behind closed lips. “Your tail’s shinier than mine, still,” he said.
And if you’re still stumped, try writing a list of your all-time favorite book or movie characters and their traits. What draws you to a character? What surprises you about the characters you like? What kind of unusual traits do they have juxtaposed that make them exciting? For any given character, you should be able to come up with three adjectives that make them different from all other characters. You wouldn’t call Buffy the Vampire Slayer pretty, brave, and strong, although she’s all three. She’s memorable because she’s sarcastic, tenacious, and melancholy. Your characters should be that way, too—as complicated as real people.
When in doubt, just watch a ton of Buffy—or any Joss Whedon show. That’s how I dreamed up Criminy Stain and the entire Blud world. Crim was the first character who dropped into my head fully-formed and didn’t require any retrofitting at all. When a character speaks to you that strongly and in a voice so unique you have no choice but to listen, it’s the start of a beautiful relationship. Especially when he’s a hot vampire Victorian carnival ringmaster.