Agents love character-driven novels. That’s because readers love them. Nothing anchors a book more than a well-developed character who we feel attached to, who we can identify or sympathize with, and who can be our guide in the world of the book that the author is created. Without this, readers tend to feel lost or stranded…
But characters and dialogue are some of the toughest elements of writing. In his book Maps for Lost Lovers, author Nadeem Aslam wrote 100-page biographies for each of his main characters before even setting out to write his book.
Even among the best writers I’ve worked with, characters are lacking some aspect of development—their appearance, their internal voice, motivation. While it’s not always necessary to actually write mini-books about each of your characters, often they are separate animals from your book. Many times, writers write their books (structure, plot, scenes, details, and places of tension) and their characters all in one breath. The problem with this is, it renders your characters flat when they (and their voices) are written in the same tone as a description of a house or a bit of back story.
You really need to spend time getting to know your characters. They are not your story. They are actors in your story and they each have roles, habits, names, hairstyles, personalities, preferences, and idiosyncrasies. Imagine sitting at a play with a bunch of homogenized talking heads reading the lines in monotone voices.
Now think for a moment of characters with a rainbow of personalities, talking in different pitches, each with their own unique body language and possessing their own unique take on the world, operating in response to one another—each of their motivations, thoughts, and feelings setting some other piece of your story into action.
It’s clear which option would be more memorable as you depart the theater.
At the very least, list 50 features of each of your characters—their unique smell, favorite relative, if they prefer wine or beer or don’t drink at all. Even if it’s just for your purposes, and the details don’t make it into the book, you’ll have more fleshed-out characters than ones who are simply lying flat on the page saying lines of dialogue with the enthusiasm of cinder blocks.
And if you want to get even more adventurous, you can hold conversations with your characters. Just close the door to your office, lean back in your chair or lie on the floor, and start out by saying, “So, Martha, what did you do this weekend?” Then wait for your answer. And really listen! Is Martha’s voice gravelly like a long-term smoker? Or high-pitched and anxious? Is it melodic and comforting? Ask her a few questions. Interview her and see what she really thinks about how Kyle treated Maria the night of that dinner party.
Remember, your characters are living and breathing entities in the minds of your readers. They need to smell, taste, feel, emote, hear, and see the events taking place in your book, and awakening all those senses within your characters and providing ample and careful details about them—their appearance, lives, internal worlds, those reactions and responses to those worlds—are what make them come alive off the page.
One of the most delicious aspects of fiction and writing fiction is experiencing the human condition on the page. Whether writing it or reading it, seeing a person face obstacles and challenges, nearly die trying to stand up for what they believe, make difficult choices, and overcome odds, then transform are the “stuff” that makes people keep buying books.