CREATING COMPLEX, COMPELLING CHARACTERS
by Maryanne Melloan Woods
My main piece of advice: go deep. Your characters should be multi-layered, fully-developed people that your readers will want to follow for an entire novel.
Take a character like Hazel in "The Fault in Our Stars:" here's a sixteen year old girl with incurable cancer who has to walk around with an oxygen tank. And yet neither she nor the story are a miserable bummer. She's incredibly sharp and unsentimental, and her observations are often laugh-out-loud funny. Is that a fresh, memorable, compelling character? I think so.
So: no clichés. Human clichés rarely exist in real life and they shouldn't populate your novel. Like every person, every fictional character should have surprises to them. And it's your job to know your characters better than anyone. I heard it said once that a character is like an iceberg: only the tip is showing, but what's unstated must clearly exist in the author's mind. That way, you'll know how they'll react when confronted with the obstacles and twists of your plot.
So how do you "go deep?" Simply defined, a character is made up of thoughts, actions and emotions. But what else might be helpful to know about your characters, to flesh them out? I always start with their wants, needs and fears, and then how each character is in conflict with each other. Over years of teaching writing, I've come up (with student input) with a list of other helpful things to know about your characters:
- married/single/do they have children?
- their home and family details
- their school or workplace
- gender/sexual orientation
- level of education
- economic level
- sense of humor
- passive or aggressive
Two last tips: 1) you should be fascinated with all of your characters. So ask yourself: what kind of people fascinate you in real life? and 2) It's very important to know what your main characters want. What your protagonist wants is what drives your story. And it can't be easy to get, or your story's over. Their struggles draw a reader in and keep them reading, because everyone struggles in life.
Maryanne Melloan Woods is a novelist/screenwriter/playwright currently living with her family in New Jersey. As a tv writer/producer, Maryanne wrote shows for networks including Showtime, NBC, ABC, Fox, the WB, Nickelodeon and ABC Family. Her plays have been produced at theaters around the country, and her first novel -- the YA paranormal thriller Lazarus -- was published by Owl Hollow Press in September of 2020. Maryanne has taught screenwriting at the American Film Institute, UCLA and Gotham Writers Workshop. She received a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Drew University and an M.F.A. in screenwriting from the American Film Institute.
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