Listen while you read!
Creating compelling characters is, in great part, contingent on how those characters engage with the plot. Do things happen TO them? Or do things happen BECAUSE of them? A character to whom things happen is not nearly as interesting as a character who makes things happen. Keep reading for three tips to writing compelling characters who are active participants in their stories.
Let’s look at a character study, first: Ivy Culpepper is the amateur sleuth from my Bread Shop mysteries in Kneaded to Death.
Ivy’s mother has just died. She returns home to be with her father and brother. She starts taking a bread making class for no particular reason. One of the classmates dies. The bread shop owner, Olaya, is a suspect. Although Ivy likes Olaya, she doesn’t want to get involved and chooses not to. A few clues happen to appear in her path. The police find the clues, too, and the case is eventually solved, but not because of Ivy.
The problem with the above scenario is that Ivy doesn’t DO anything active. She’s not a participant in the investigation. It’s a mystery book, but she doesn’t actively try to solve the crime.
That’s a pretty boring book!
Imagine, though, that our heroine is a much more active participant in the plot. The situation is the same: Ivy’s mother died and she’s come home to be with her family. She meets Olaya and is convinced to take the bread baking class. It isn’t long before she knows she will learn from Olaya and that baking bread is going to be therapeutic for her.
Then someone dies.
And because Olaya is a suspect, Ivy does get involved. She likes this woman and feels strongly that she is innocent. Ivy can’t sit back and be a passive observer while the police investigate.
She follows leads, uncovers clues, and ferrets out the truth. Ultimately, it’s because of Ivy’s cleverness and tenacity that the killer is brought to justice.
The result of the second scenario is a much more interesting story. The reader is by Ivy’s side through the investigation trying to unravel the clues and make sense of the what happened.
So, how do you go about making sure you create a character who acts rather than reacts?
First, you need to make sure the POV character has a clear internal and/or external goal, depending on the scene; something needs to be stopping her from achieving said goal.
Ex: Ivy likes Olaya. She sees her as an aunt figure, which she needs. Because of this, she wants to act, but fear or lack of confidence or some other reason stops her from getting involved.
Instead of having things happen TO your character, make your character MAKE things happen.
In this scenario, Ivy is a passive participant in the investigation. She is not acting based on a goal (see Tip 1).
Ivy happens to go to the library where she finds a book on a table. She flips through it, for no apparent reason, and finds a clue.
In this scenarios, Ivy responds to a Stimulus-Response-Result situation. She has a goal and seeks to achieve it (finding the book, and therefore the clue).
STIMULUS: Ivy overhears something about a book at the library. She thinks it might be a clue.
RESPONSE: She makes the decision to go to the library to hunt for the book.
RESULT: She finds the book, which contains a message is written on a dog-eared page.
Choice and conflict.
Instead of turning away from conflict, make sure your POV character faces it head-on. This comes down to decision-making. When faced with pursuing a clue or not, an active character will go in pursuit. That is far more interesting that a character who chooses not to act.
And there you have it. Three tips to help you create compelling characters who are active participants in their story.
I go into this concept in depth in the Ready, Set, WRITE! course on the WriterSpark Academy Online Learning Platform. If you’re writing a novel, this course is for you!
Did you read about understanding the building blocks of a scene? Read it HERE!
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