One thing manuscript assessors look very closely at when working with a new manuscript is the characters and their relationships, because character is what brings plot alive—you can have the most exciting idea and best-constructed plot in the world, but without vivid, engaging characters who make emotional sense to the reader, and a clear sense of how they’re connected to each other and how they feel about each other and the things happening to them, it won’t come alive.
The things I look for most when assessing characters are voice, consistency and connections.
Characters keep the reader engaged in the story, and the best way to do that is through their voice. No two characters should sound identical unless it’s a plot point!
If you have a character whose voice is uncertain, or isn’t standing out as their own, look at what you know about them already to see what you can build on to create an authentic voice for them. Are they based on stereotypes, or do they subvert stereotypes? Are their objectives or their needs clearly defined—what do they want to gain or accomplish? What’s their take on the world—are they a cynic, an idealist, a pragmatist? How does this clash with or support their goals? What’s their background, in terms of ethnicity, class, education, place of origin and income, and how do these factors influence how they speak and act? What does their working life look like, and what does their personal life look like? Who do they talk to most often, and how does that affect the way they talk to everyone else?
Writers are often advised to create a ‘character sheet’ for each character and fill in as many pieces of information as they can before they start writing a story. I don’t know if this is a great tool for character development—a lot of the writers I know prefer to discover their characters on the page as they write—but it’s definitely effective for figuring out what you’ve discovered about a character after the first draft is done, and filling in the gaps to give a character you’re not sure about a stronger voice.
There are two pieces of advice writers often get about consistency of character. One is that consistency is the key to believability, and the second is that if a character does something that’s out of character, they should keep it and see what it leads to, because inconsistency is both relatable and revelatory.
Both of these things are true. At the same time. Of course.
The trick is that for inconsistency to be relatable and revelatory, it has to derive from, and connect to, a larger element of consistency. Is the way in which your character behaves out-of-character in that one moment consistent with their larger character? If so, how? If not, why not—what’s happened to knock them that far off course, and how do they react to their own actions afterwards, as normality reasserts itself? If you can’t figure out the connection, then maybe that’s a path you don’t want to take the character down after all…or maybe you have a game-changing plot point that takes you into a genre you didn’t realise you were writing…*
But at the same time, consistency doesn’t mean eternal sameness. A character that doesn’t grow or change over the course of a story is, at best, boring. What impact do the events of the plot have on your character? Do they change the way they think or feel about things? How they see the world? How they react to stress? How they choose between options? Check in with your character at the beginning, middle and end of your story and ask yourself some questions about them at each point. If you get the same answers to all of the questions each time, it’s a sign that your character hasn’t really been affected by the plot.
No character is an island, entire of itself; each one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…with apologies to John Donne! But it’s true. Characters don’t exist independently of each other**, so in addition to thinking about how the plot affects a character, you also have to think about how their relationships with other characters affect them.
Ask yourself what you know about characters as pairs, trios or groups. What do they like or dislike about each other? If there are lots of things they dislike, why do they stay around each other? What would be bad enough to change that? How do the characters’ relationships support or hinder them when it comes to achieving their goals, and would they ever be prepared to sacrifice the relationship to achieve the goals—or the goals to protect the relationship? How do the relationships change as the characters change? What would happen to the relationship if one character changed so much that the other didn’t recognise them any more?
Remember, too, that relationships overlap, and they don’t only come in pairs. Your protagonist might have relationships with a romantic partner, three business associates, two children, two siblings, a parent, five friends, eight employees, and one frequent Facebook commenter! So look for the overlap points and see if you can discover some character-revealing, plot-driving tension there. What happens if your protagonist’s best friend loathes their closest sibling, for very good reasons? How your protagonist reacts will say something about who they are, and possibly drive the story forward.
As with individual characters, you can do spot-checks for relationships. Ask yourself questions about your characters’ relationships at the beginning, middle and end of the book, and see if you can figure out what changes happen, or need to happen, to create your story.
And all of these points apply to non-fiction as well as to fiction, although of course in non-fiction you don’t have the option of making up characters or relationships. After all, where would a biography be without its subject’s voice, or their network of relationships, or a sense of when they were acting consistently and when they did something completely out of character?
Next week, I’ll look at finding the right point of view to tell your story from.
*A wizard did it! Alien mind-control! They’ve been replaced by a secret agent in a really good disguise!
**I was going to write ‘in a vacuum’ but if you’re writing SF, you never know…