Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tip O'Day for Writers #79

Guest blogger Ray Garton says textured characters are essential.

No matter what genre you write in, no matter what kind of story or novel you're writing, a reader will not come back for more if you don't give him characters he recognizes, can connect with emotionally and will want to follow to the end. Your reader doesn't have to like all of these characters, but they must ring true to him. He must be able to feel they are in some way like people he has known, or at least like people he could know.

This should be true of both protagonists and antagonists. If your villain is simply villainous, he will be flat, unbelievable and uninteresting. But if he has human characteristics that are likable -- even admirable -- his villainy will be more effective because it comes from a well-rounded human being and has understandable motivations. If your hero is only heroic, he will not ring true. His flaws and weaknesses will make him far more appealing to the reader, because we all have those and must overcome them.

Even if you are a master of plot, nothing will bring a reader back faster than characters with depth, flaws, strengths and familiar experiences and emotions. A great example of this is Stephen King. Sure, he writes books that twist reality in creepy ways and sometimes involve strange creatures or people with bizarre abilities. But they are populated with characters who resonate with readers, and those characters make all the weirdness much more believable. Having written mostly horror fiction in the last 27 years, it seems natural and perhaps even cliched for me to use him as an example, so let me recommend another.

John Irving, the author of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, has created some of the most eccentric characters since Dickens. But no matter how odd they are, they are still recognizable as human beings and their quirks are understandable. We may not like all of them, but we recognize the humanity in them and we enjoy getting to know them and following them through Irving's novels, which tend to span generations.

Plot is only part of the battle. Nothing will make your plot sing more beautifully than a cast of fully-fleshed characters with whom your readers can make an emotional connection. If your readers care about those people, it will make your plot more riveting, more compelling, and your readers will come back for more.

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