Lesson #65: Strengthening Characters

In this lesson, we’ll discuss how to strengthen an already-existing character. Check out Lessons #62, #63, and #64 to learn more about strengthening plot, voice, and setting.

Questions to Ask

Are you editing an old manuscript? Have you transferred a character from one story to another? Are you editing your current manuscript and noticing some flaws (or lack of depth) in certain areas?

Well then, this lesson is for you!

Let’s start by posing some critical questions:

  • What is this character’s relation to the story? (Main character? Hero? Heroine? Secondary character? Parent of the hero? Sister of the villain?)
  • How often does this character appear in the story? (Every scene? Every chapter? Every other chapter?)
  • What does this character do in the story? (If a character does not move the plot forward in some way – important dialogue, influencing the main character, etc. – then he/she has no place in the story.)
  • What do you want this character to accomplish in the story/plot? (Every character – no matter how small – needs to have motivation and goals in life and in these specific situations. These may not directly come into play, but you, as the author, need to be aware of them).
  • How much do you want to use/see this character in your manuscript?
  • Is this character sufficiently related to, involved in, and scattered throughout your manuscript?

Did you answer all of the questions?

What is your diagnosis of this character? Do they need more time/space in your story? Do they need less time/space in your story? Do they need to be cut out of the story completely? Did you realize that Maggie-the-secondary-character was actually a main character? Did you realize that Tommy-the-neighbor’s-cat is the villain? (Hey, it could happen). Let’s take a look at your synopsis (a detailed explanation of what happens in your manuscript) and see what needs to be changed/edited.

Pinpointing the Weak Spots

We know that every character has (and needs) weaknesses. This is good! But, as writers, we do not want our characters to have weak spots. Your characters (all of them) need to be believable, relative, intriguing, important to the plot, and layered. After completing the questions above, did you notice any weak spots? How many layers does your character have? Is your character intriguing? (A great way to answer these questions is by asking a trusted friend or Crit Group partner to take a look).

Once You’ve Pinpointed a Weak Spot…

Now that we know this character’s weak spots, let’s make him/her stronger! Following are some tips on how to strengthen a less-than-real/believable/relative/intriguing/important/layered character.

  • Give your character a personality. (No, I’m serious!) There’s a great site called 16personalities.com in which you can take a free assessment to find out your Meyers-Briggs Personality Type. But we writers ask: why not assign personalities to our characters as well? There’s a lot of information regarding a personality’s reactions to situations, level of interest in certain subjects, compatibility with other personalities, etc. Is your character an INFJ or an ESTP? Does he prefer low-stress jobs or adventurous jobs? Does she like to meet new people or does she cling to previous relationships?
  • Does your character spend enough time in the plot? Let’s be honest, any character who’s not willing to put their best effort into this manuscript shouldn’t be allowed to participate. If you’re character has too small of a part, consider boosting his/her involvement in the story. It doesn’t have to be significant – but if a character appears once at the beginning of the story and once at the end, chances are your readers won’t remember who the said character is. Scatter secondary characters throughout the novel to keep the reader interested. And remember: your main character needs to be your MAIN character. The rule of thumb is: you always have one MAIN-main character. You can have up to four main characters – but someone needs to take the leadership role. This role may change as the story progresses (if one of your main characters dies, this is a good way to change the “leadership role” to another main character) between the main characters due to certain circumstances (death, a coma, turning to the Dark Side, etc.) But remember: we are creatures of habit who crave stability. In a plot filled with shifting sands, it’s good to have something to hang on to. That anchor? Your main character. His/her situation, personality, life choices, opinion, point of view, and everything else may change – but at least we know who to watch, who to think about, and who to relate to.
  • Give your character lots and lots of layers. Your readers may never know the extent of your knowledge about this particular character – but you need to know all of those nitty-gritty details just the same. A great character is not shallow. On the contrary, a great character is both real and extremely layered. Do you know your characters backstory? How much? How do things from your character’s past effect the present? How will they effect the future? What are your character’s quirks? How do these quirks appear to other people? What does your character know about him/herself? What does he/she deny? In the Johari Window (a diagram used to understand our relationship to others and ourselves) created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, there are four windows of perception: the blind window, the open window, the hidden window, and the unknown window. Everyone has “items” that fit into all of these categories – in other words, things about us relate to these four quadrants. Unfortunately, most writers focus on the open window and ignore the others. Items in the open window are things known to both ourselves and other people (for example: I have blond hair. I smile a lot. I like to talk. I admire so-and-so). Items in the hidden window are known to ourselves, but not to others (for example: I had a sad/scary/terrible childhood). Items in the blind window are things known to other people, but not ourselves (for example: I am in denial). Items in the unknown window are not known to others or ourselves (for example: I would have liked chocolate if I didn’t have such-and-such bad experience. I have the potential to be a great musician but I’ve never picked up an instrument). Check out more information here: http://communicationtheory.org/the-johari-window-model/
  • Don’t forget about the character arc! Every character should start somewhere and end somewhere else. Of course, your main characters will take up the majority of space/time in your story. Look at your current character arc. Where does your character start (physically, emotionally, personally, mentally, spiritually?) Where does your character end? Is there a significant shift? How fast does your character change? Remember, your character arc MUST be believable! How many layers are there in your character arc? Are there enough opportunities to urge change? Are there points of sadness, happiness, conflict, encouragement, and enlightenment? Is there depth in your character’s arc? Is this character arc strong enough to resonate with your readers? (A good fictional character arc will apply to all readers).

Are you ready to strengthen your characters? If you need any help, be sure to email us at thewritenook@kimandkaylawoodhouse.com

With pen to paper,

Kayla Woodhouse

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