A week (ish) ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with bestselling author and writing coach, James Scott Bell. It was a fantastic day of learning how to look deep inside our characters to understand what made them tick, and how structure can lay the framework for a compelling internal arc.
The day left my brain bursting, and very excited to look back into my novels to discover the “mirror moment” something that Jim discusses in his new book, Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.
The mirror moment is at the midpoint of the story where the character is faced with these questions: who am I? What have I become? And, who must I become to continue? This is the point where the hero is weighed down by his situation and has a moment of internal reflection. He sees that the odds are too great and he must grow stronger to succeed, or that who he is now is holding him back and to move forward he must transform, leaving his old self behind. (It’s a short book, but one you absolutely should add to your collection. Click on the link and come back…trust me. Go on, I’ll wait.)
Another thing he left us with was a neat checklist of what can make a character leap off the page. I thought I’d share it here.
Characters who are original in some way–a unique blend of character traits, a witty sense of humor, interests or a job that is unusual, a vibrant outlook or attitude–make the reader want to get to know them, and see inside their inner world. Strive to provide a character that is unexpected and fresh.
Readers are engaged by characters who do not always act in a predictable way. Think of how to have your character make decisions or respond in ways the reader won’t see coming. The easiest way to do this is by looking at the situation and decide what most would do. Then, brainstorm a list of other things your hero might do. Get as crazy as you like, and then read through your ideas until you hit on the perfect match.
Every character should have something they yearn for, something they want deeply for themselves. Readers identify with wanting such a strong desire or need. Make it meaningful and important to the character, and it will become meaningful and important to the reader as well.
All characters should have a back story wound, an emotional hurt that still affects them today. Emotional pain is compelling, deepening a character as well as humanizing them. Look for ways to show that pain in the present, symbolized in the setting and events, acting as reminders of the past. (Need some help figuring out your hero’s Emotional Wound? Check out our handy list of Common Themes for Emotional Wounds.)
A protagonist that feels passionately about something (his role, his goals, his beliefs) is able to form a powerful connection with readers. Don’t be afraid to show a character’s passion.
There’s something compelling about a character who has opposing needs or desires, and who experiences conflicted emotions at turning points in the story. This “pull” in different directions creates inner turmoil and complexity that will draw readers in.
Characters who have special talents and skills (hey, there’s a thesaurus for that!) can be resourceful, helping them get out of a tight spot or solve problems in a unique way. This elevates them to readers, making them more interesting and likable! Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to talents or skills that can turn your character from ordinary to extraordinary.
Walking the walk, talking the talk. Characterization happens not through telling, but showing, especially when a character is faced with a less-than-ideal situation. Showing them doing something even though they don’t want to do it is both gutsy and memorable.
Having strong morals and beliefs and acting on them, even when it might be easier not to, earns admiration. Giving your character a noble purpose will win the hearts of readers.
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Jim stressed a character doesn’t need to have all of these of course, but choosing a few and fleshing out your character with some in mind will help you build a hero that readers can’t help but be drawn to.
Do your characters have some of these in their make up? What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.