If you’re reading this, you’re probably either a reader or a writer of fiction—or both. So, I challenge you: why do you read fiction? Possible answers could include:
To kill time.
For pure entertainment.
To get out of my own head for a while.
To step into someone else’s world, to live their lives, feel their feelings.
To learn, by seeing how someone else lived through a situation.
No matter why we read fiction, nearly all of the above apply. Reading does indeed “kill” time. If it isn’t entertainment, why bother? I’m afraid the lofty goal of seeking to attain enlightenment became passé in the last century, but all of us want and need to get out of our own heads at one time or another. What could be more exciting than to step into someone else's world, to meet new and interesting people and to see things through their eyes and feel their feelings for a while? And who among us doesn’t need a little help from time to time coping with what life throws at us?
So, based on all the above, what are we looking for in fiction?
Plot? Certainly plot is necessary for entertainment. There is almost nothing as bad as a tired, overworked plot; and yet, many maintain that all the plot lines had been used by Shakespeare's’ time. If that’s true, how can 21st Century authors make those old story lines fresh? With new characters.
Remember I said "almost nothing as bad…"? To me, there's absolutely nothing as bad as weak characters―cardboard cutouts, devoid of real emotion and personality. When I finish a novel, I want to have met and to know new people, people who will stay with me for a long time.
So, how does a novelist create "real" people out of white paper and black ink? How does he or she create people you know care about? By knowing the character inside out, and not just how the character looks. Nothing could be less important. Knowing how the character speaks is much more vital. Soft spoken? Southern accent? Harsh, clipped speech? These are clues about the person behind the voice. Mannerisms also tell a tale. Does the character talk with her hands? Point a finger at another character's chest? Tap his foot, toss her hair? Does the character lope or stride or saunter? These are all clues as to the character's…well, character.
It is vital that the novelist know the character inside out, but that's not as simple as it sounds. I write what's called character-driven fiction, which means the characters drive the plot instead of the other way around. When I begin to develop a character, I fill out a lengthy profile, asking myself questions like What First Impression do they give (aggressive, retiring, athletic)? What's their Social Background? Siblings or Only Child? Life Goals and Biggest Fears? What makes the character sad? Angry? What are some of his or her flaws? We all have them. So should our characters.
I've been told this kind of mechanical act will stifle creativity, but I've found the opposite to be true. It's my roadmap to the character, my method for crawling inside my character's skin. Sure the character will change and grow as the story develops. It's not vital to know everything about them at the beginning of the first draft, but you should know them inside out by the time you get to the end.
The next time you pick up a piece of fiction, notice how well the author answered these questions and notice the direct correlation to how well you relate to the character. It will make you a better reader―and a better writer.
Lynda is the author of several books, ranging from Romantic Suspense to mainstream fiction. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Atlanta Writers Club and the Florida Writers Association. Although born in Florida, Lynda currently lives in Snellville, Georgia with her crew of rescue German Shepherds and one little Cairn Terrier and is currently working on book three in the LIVE series.