Without memorable characters, your story is dead in the water. Nothing can save it. Not a great plot. Not a great premise. Not a great climax. Why? Because if readers don’t like your characters, they will not care what happens. The good news is, the fix is pretty simple.
And Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (Writer’s Digest Books 2001) gives us a great way to fix it. In previous posts I’ve talked about Lamb’s favorite stories and books on craft, as well as her nice overview of the different processes writers use to get their stories started. Here, I want to briefly explore an idea she emphasizes in her chapter on character.
10 Tips for Creating Memorable Characters
In her chapter, “The Cast of Characters,” Lamb gives readers a useful list of tips and tricks for creating characters reader’s will care about. They are:
- State What the Character Wants- if we don’t know what the character wants, we can’t root for them as they try to achieve it or feel for them when they fail.
- Honor Struggle- make your character struggle to get what they want and change as a result of that struggle.
- Feature one of the Four Fundamental Conflicts- Person vs. Person; Person vs. Nature; Person vs. Society; Person vs. Self.
- Portray Vivid Personalities- larger-than-life characters are characters we want to follow.
- Create Convincing Motivation- authenticity of thought and motivation is what makes characters come alive.
- Reflect Unspoken Feelings in Someone or Something Else- this is really an extension of number 8, I think; basically, you are having a supporting character say what the main character is thinking.
- Present Multifaceted Villains- this keeps them from being “mustache twirlers.”
- Dramatize Feelings- this is the basis of the old adage, “show don’t tell.”
- Create Empathetic Situations- if you put your character in situations your reader has been in, your reader will find your character more relatable
- Make Certain the Hero Saves Him or Herself- they are the ones that actively confront the final obstacle.
Keeping Your Hero Active
The last tip is the one I want to talk about. This is especially a problem in kids books where authors have a parent or some adult-“force” step-in to make everything alright. The reason this is such a problem in children’s writing is that it instantly undermines the agency of the protagonist, who is usually a child (perhaps in animal or alien form), in the story.
In classical times, they called this a deus ex machina, which roughly translates into “god in the machine.” In Greek drama, it was commonplace for a god to step-in and solve whatever problems remained at story’s end. It fit with their worldview.
Today, when this happens, it feels like a cheat. A bad example of this is when a story is revealed to have all been a dream at the end. Another example is when a hero suddenly possesses knowledge or a power (that hasn’t been set up) which helps them overcome some final obstacle.
Crafting Satisfying Stories and Characters
The lesson to be learned here is that for stories to feel satisfying, your hero has to win or lose based on actions they take. Yes, they can be supported by other people, but ultimately, your hero must be the one who initiates the final confrontation and finds (or fails to find) the solution to his or her problem. This active confrontation is what makes them heroic.
Whether your story ends on a happy, sad, or bittersweet note doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the hero, in the climax, has taken definitive action to confront (emotionally or physically) whatever obstacle stands in his or her way. You’d be surprised how many authors fail to do this and how many stories fail because of it.
With this in mind, think of one of your favorite stories (for any age) and find the moment when the hero decides to “save” him or herself. Explain how this involves some physical or emotional confrontation with one of the story’s major obstacles. Write the story and the moment in the comments, and I’ll do the same!