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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What Makes a Good Character? By Nell DuVall

Three major factors determine a character: the genre, the experience and expectations of readers, and the author's intentions. In romance and romantic suspense, readers like the alpha male, the strong silent type. They also like to see spunky heroines. In speculative fiction, which may or may not include a romantic subplot, heroes regardless of gender are essential and willing to fight overwhelming odds. In literary fiction, all bets are off and anti-heroes may hold sway. Mysteries vary greatly from doddering old people to smart youngsters. 

I like quirky characters and find that helps when defining secondary characters. I love writing villains and try to gain at least reader understanding of why they do what they do. That doesn't change their focus, and few of them change their intentions. They are seldom redeemable.

I have the most trouble with romantic heroes because of the patterns most editors want them to meet. As alpha males, mine start out goal focused. Often another woman has hurt them or a colleagues who almost destroy whatever they value—a business or success. They are ambitious, sometimes ruthless, with a strong desire to succeed. Most aren't seeking love. They may seek women who can enhance their lifestyle, definitely not the heroine. In the beginning, they often, but not always, prefer gooey woman or at least the image of a successful hostess. Over the course of the story, the hero changes and becomes more vulnerable and human. 

I don't write gooey women. Mine are spunky, logical to a fault, and determined to save the world, whether the hero's life or another alien world. They don't give up even in the face of overwhelming odds. They aren't good at relationships and rebel against alpha male types. Some lack confidence while others are overconfident. 

All my characters have strengths and flaws. Strengths when carried to extremes become flaws. Except for villains, my characters change during the course of the story and sometimes end up with goals they would not have originally considered. 

In my mysteries, the hero/ine unmasks the evil, but s/he is not necessarily caught, which some editors consider a no-no. I dislike mysteries where the evil doer when confronted, confesses all. I want them to stay true to their nature. However, it can also be fun to have them change and reform. This is often true in Young Adult stories. 

Another important aspect is to stay within character. This can be difficult in time travel romances, thrillers, novels with differing ethnic backgrounds, or alien worlds. Language, manner of speech, and mannerisms may and usually do differ. Characters may see each other and the story settings in vary different ways. These differences may create added conflict and add richness to the story. 

The most important thing to remember: readers must become vested in the characters and root for them to succeed. Every writer wants the readers to believe in the characters.  

There are many books on character traits and motivation available, especially those from the Writer's Digest. Ultimately though, one of best methods is to take a book in the genre that you have enjoyed and analyze the characters. Why do you like them? What are their strengths, weaknesses, and flaws? How do they change over the course of the story? 

Above all, write characters the reader can understand and empathize with. All readers may not love the characters, but they should be able to understand and root for them. Barry Longyear accomplished this in Enemy Mine. If you haven’t read it or seen the movie, it has a lot to teach writers. 

When Lilacs Bloom (ebook and paperback)

Beyond the Rim of Light by Alex Stone (Nell DuVall and Steven Riddle) (book and paperback)

Train to Yesterday (ebook and hardback)

Selvage (ebook and paperback, Aug. 2012)

A bank scam, a series of accidents that end as murders, and police too ready to accept simple explanations for deaths push freelance writer Brooke Beldon and systems programmer Paul Counts ever deeper into a tangled conspiracy. She struggles to clear her brother’s name. Paul, a sucker for a blue-eyed blonde, initially wants to help her, but also ends the chief suspect in murder. He must clear his name and unravel the bank theft to identify the culprits.
The only clue they have is the name of a sleazy strip club. Paul gets stonewalled at the club, so Brooke enlists the help of a sympathetic hostess. Going undercover, she tries to learn all she can about her kid brother Stan and the woman who left with him the night he died.
World traveler Nell DuVall has visited all the continents except South American and Antarctica. She has participated in marine surveys and archeological expeditions in Scotland, Ireland, and Turkey. Living for a while in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio gave her the inspiration for the "Corpulent Chiropteran" in Curious Hearts and her four Halloween tales in the ebook Teaching Man and Other Tales.

As Mel Jacob, ahe also regularly reviews speculative fiction for www.SFREVU.com and mysteries for www.Gumshoereview.com.

1 comment:

Jody Vitek said...

Fun post Nell. I couldn't agree more with much of what you had to say.