character development, characterization, fiction submission, interiority, internal dialogue, J.D. Salinger, manuscript submission, narrative craft, novel manuscript, novel writing, point of view, slush pile, writing advice, writing craft
I try to create sympathy for my characters, then I turn the monsters loose.
I recently was asked for the number one piece of advice I could give to writers (who I assumed are either submitting or planning to submit their book manuscript). As a submissions reader, there were about a dozen “number one” things I thought of, but the key to escaping the slush pile is character development. Ultimately, it’s the characters who make me care about and believe in what’s happening on the page. Well-developed characters make it possible for me to suspend disbelief and get caught up in the story.
A couple of weeks ago, while working on my parents’ house, I rescued a few books headed for donation. Among them was Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger, a novel I picked up as a teenager and tried to read several times but couldn’t seem to get past page 50. There was something about the voice or maybe the main character that bothered me. The narrator seemed too whiny, too full of himself or self-centered. Maybe being a teenager myself, the voice hit too close to home. But decades later, here I am, flying through the book in two days.
As a writer and adult reader, I now appreciate Salinger’s craft choices, from the unreliable narrator, whose language and social perspective are reflective of the time, to the distinct characterization of other characters coming through dialogue and the lens of the narrator. This time around, I’m able to read beyond the adolescent voice and sense the loneliness and grief underneath Caulfield’s self-absorbed internal chatter. His terrible decisions and self-destructive behavior are not so annoying and unsympathetic as they are revealing and relatable. Despite all the teenage angst I experienced in my youth, I’d never have chosen to go down the same rabbit hole as Holden Caulfield. But I believe that he would, and I’m willing to stay with him until the last page, because he pulled me into his story.
Fictional characters are convincing not because they are “lifelike” but because the reader engagement with them is. Compelling characters both confirm our understanding of experience, invoked as we measure their motives and behavior against our own, and refine it by confronting us with what we can’t or don’t dare articulate, by claiming our sympathy despite our reluctance, by posing possibilities we didn’t imagine but will believe.
In your character development, check to see if you’re protecting (and suffocating) your characters in any way, either as a watchful, proud parent or as a micro-managing, controlling boss. These characters are often beautiful, striking or handsome, or they’re equipped with MacGuyver-like traits that gets them out a jam every time, and always in time for the next plot point. They’re flat, predictable and too implausible to connect with. It’s far more engaging (by adding to the story’s tension) when the characters are emotionally complex, morally ambiguous and uniquely flawed.
Characters I have believed to be villains often exhibit heroic qualities, and the heroes are often very flawed. I find something about failure incredibly human and moving and so characters that others think of as losers are often the ones to whom I am most sympathetic. I have to work hard to love the sheep who do not go astray.
– Rick Moody*
Forget about what you see on TV. I’ll often read thrillers, mysteries or police-procedural type stories written largely in poorly disguised 3rd person objective, with shallow internal dialogue, or interiority, that avoids revealing true character psychology. This interior shallowness is especially glaring when the novel is written in 1st person POV. Such main characters are concerned with only solving the case or achieving their mission, of which they have no personal or internal stakes. They have no ugly warts, no hidden demons and no vulnerability. We never get anything of emotional depth or complication. I usually get bored with these characters very quickly, By the time I’ve read the first ten to fifteen pages, I’m ready to move on to another manuscript with hopefully more engaging and authentic characters that reflect the human condition.
Fiction has the flexibility denied to film and drama, where everything the spectator knows must be shown. In fiction, you have the privilege of entering a character’s mind, sharing at its source internal conflict, reflection, and the crucial processes of decision and discovery…What’s important to characterization is that thought, like speech reveals more than information. It can also set mood, reveal or betray desires, develop theme and so forth.
I find a character struggling with his inner demons far more interesting than a character who is simply moving from one plot point to another without a real worry. Don’t be afraid to dive deeper into your characters’ motivations, reflections and other thought processes. Their mistakes might be out of good intentions, or they make bad decisions, maybe even selfish ones. This creates conflict, both in the characters’ environment and within themselves, which makes me want to keep reading to see how it’s resolved by the characters. In other words, character traits and their internal thoughts give them substance and provide meaning to their actions.
In two words, veracity and unpredictability. Those two go together. I hate reading about ho-hum, “typical” characters who say predictable, generic things and don’t seem real. A character’s language must reveal her or his personality, and the personality must reveal distinctive human traits…For me, it’s a matter of embodiment – really trying to crawl under the skin of a character. If the character isn’t real for the writer, how can he or she be for the reader?
– Ann Cummins*
I’d love to hear from fellow writers and editors. How do you go about developing characters? How do you use character traits and internal dialogue to make characters engaging and believable? How do you get under the character’s skin to expose their true nature? How do you get them be more vulnerable, honest and authentic to your readers?
*Quoted from The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook