If you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend you set aside a week and watch Red Letter Media’s brutal dissection of the Star Wars prequels (I say a week because there are a lot of videos and they’re pretty long). One of the things they discuss is the difference in characterization between the original trilogy and the prequels. They posed this challenge to avid Star Wars fans:
Simple enough, yes? While the people they interviewed had no problem rattling off descriptions of characters in the original movies, they were stumped when it came to the prequels–resorting to job, physical description, or sometimes not remembering the character at all. You can watch the clip below.
If you’re a writer, I challenge you to do the same for your characters. Don’t rely on your own descriptions of them. Ask readers! I read for someone recently who inserted her character’s IQ in the text and when I said I found that dubious she felt insulted (the character was kind of a numbskull, average intellect at best). Telling me a character is smart doesn’t matter. Show them being smart.
One of the issues I’ve seen with a couple of people I read for is that their stories lack life. Grammatically speaking, they were an easy read, but they’re not engaging, to the point where I find myself skimming or zoning out. A friend of mine described them as “anemic.”
Well in one case, the book lacks tension (there’s a lot happening, but it’s just a guy doing stuff and everything goes as planned). But in both cases, the main character is flat. This is especially evident in the story that has tension. The writer is hitting all the right marks–adding hooks at the end of chapters–but none of it matters.
Because the main character is flat and lifeless. She’s not interesting. The side characters aren’t really interesting. The only descriptor I can come up with for her is “ditzy,” and that’s probably not something you want your main character to be.
Here’s another test for you:
Yank your main characters out of your story, put them into a completely different story, and ask your readers how they’d behave.
There’s been a lot of criticisms over JK Rowling lately, but if there’s one thing the woman knows how to do, it’s craft compelling characters. You take Harry, Ron, Hermione and throw them into Jurassic Park and people are going to know how the characters will behave. You can do this with all of her numerous recurring characters, from Luna Lovegood, Molly Weasley, to Bellatrix Lestrange.
It works because we know them. We care about them. And that means we’re curious to see what happens in their story.
No compelling characters, no engagement.
Copyright © 2019 Val Neil. All rights reserved.