by Normandie Fischer @WritingOnBoard
A stone plopped into water formed ripples, creating concentric circles that moved out from the center and subsided gradually if nothing impeded their progress. Whether or not they ever came to a full stop, Teo wasn’t scientist enough to know. It looked to him as if the molecules touched by movement became propelled in an infinitely wider arc, slower perhaps as they achieved distance, but still there, still moving, still affecting other molecules and pushing them to confront whatever lay in their path. (Sailing out of Darkness, page 335)
As writers, we long for our words to be like that stone, causing a ripple effect that touches and perhaps even changes readers. We know readers want to be touched, because we’re readers as well as writers.
But if, in our writer guise, we don’t give them a reason to care, they’ll toss our book aside and call it boring, shallow, mediocre.
Back when I was editing full time, I came across wannabe published writers who’d found a compelling theme or a great idea, but whose characters lacked depth. Action may have abounded, but they hadn’t made me care what happened next because their characters felt flat when I wanted rounded, whole.
Think about the fictional characters who’ve stayed with you over time. What about them hooked you? Why do you remember them?
It certainly wasn’t their physical or emotional perfection.
The authors who have created memorable characters have shown us fully rounded and imperfect people—flawed as we are. But if the author had stopped there, would that be enough? I think not. I think the characters that we remember are:
- flawed plus heroic,
- flawed plus courageous,
- flawed plus something.
Scarlett was a mess, but no one will forget her last scene. What about Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird? Or Elizabeth Bennett? Or Sherlock Holmes? Human, rounded, fascinating characters.
As Lisa Cron (Story Genius) writes: “…caring about a character doesn’t necessarily mean liking them at all. It means being curious about them: not simply about what they do, but about why on earth they’re doing it.”
I’m not going to be able to do much more here than to suggest you consider how you might make your character have the sticking power of a Scarlett O’Hara. Every one of us—and every character we create—faces challenges differently because of how our life has shaped us. We each have a backstory—a history of specific things that determine our what, why, and how. Understanding our own and our character’s history will help us craft fascinating individuals whose story leaves an impression. Think about these questions.
- What lies does your character believe about herself and the world?
- And what image does she project to the world?
- What made her believe these lies?
- What might make her finally see the truth?
- And once she does, how will that change her behavior and her thoughts about herself?
- What about her choices?
- What compels her to make the ones she does?
- How will those choices change her life?
- What about her can show her as heroic?
- Why should we, your readers, care?
Ask the same questions of your male characters. How are they flawed and how are they heroic? And what does actual heroism mean in your story?
When our characters appear full-bodied and imperfect on the page as they overcome challenges (not through superhuman powers but because of their humanity), they will touch readers’ hearts and maybe even give them hope. And isn’t that what we, as Christians who write, actually want? We long for our work to create ripples that make a difference to at least one other person.
This week, I received a long letter from a gentleman who wrote of pain and loss and frustration and then ended his note about Becalmed with: “Anyway, my point in writing you is this and this alone. While reading your novel, I felt human again and capable of many futures. I felt the possibility of Love and redemption after great loss….”
This is what we long to hear, isn’t it? I remember this one after Sailing out of Darkness appeared: “Our favorite literary characters are written indelibly into our hearts as we experience them living out the very pains and hopes which have been written deeply onto our souls. [The author] has a gift of writing wounded characters to life, characters who publicly reflect the wounds we keep private.”
Stones, circles, ripples. Hearts touched. Character revealed.
How, you ask, can we create that?
We look into our own heart. We examine our own pain. We give ourselves a reality check about our failures. Because if we don’t write from that place in us that knows and understands the imperfect while longing for the Perfect, we’ll have trouble writing characters who fail and then soar with hope.
So, now, tell me about your favorite flawed yet heroic characters, ones who’ve stuck with you long after you read their story.
And tell me about your own characters—how you dug deeply into yourself to craft them as you listened to what they had to say.
Also, which craft books helped you the most when you were learning to write? Which helped you discover new character depth? I know of several that top my list. Perhaps we can share these in the comments for those are just beginning their writing discovery.
Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English, and as well as being a writer, she’s been an editor, a teacher, and an artist. She and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. She is the author of six novels. Read more on her website, Facebook, and Amazon.