“Just throw strikes, buddy!”
When I think back to the days when my son played little league ball, there were many times when a pitcher stood there on the bump, chucking pitches in to the batter, and missing the strike zone by a mile. For any parent who has witnessed kids’ sports, you understand the pain of living through those days when they’re learning the game.
One particular instance found me watching a game, and the pitcher couldn’t find the strike zone. The well-intentioned coach shouted encouragement from the dugout. “Just throw strikes, there bud!” I wondered if the pitcher, in his frustration, said to himself, “Ohhh, so that’s what I should be doing. Who knew I was supposed to throw strikes?”
How does this apply to writing?
Q: How do I make my characters better?
Pat A: Well, just make them remarkable!
Great advice . . . not.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and get into the practical mechanics of creating a compelling character. If you’re going to do this well, you need to study those characters – literary and on TV – that really appeal to you. No longer can you be a passive member of the audience.
In my travels, there are consistently 4 things that keep arising with the characters I truly enjoy:
1. A compelling story goal.
This is why in the Write Your First Novel Now! Course, I emphasize the need to have a huge story goal for our protagonist. If it’s not big, seemingly unachievable, then our character would likely shrug their shoulders and say “meh”. The goal drives motivation which drives behaviour. Make the goal large.
2. A secret.
What’s a hero without some dark secret? This is the juice that we love to see. Give your characters one. All of them. Think about your own: stealing, betrayal, cheating, lying etc. What have you buried from your past? Go there.
3. The contradiction.
Oh, we love our characters to be consistent, and they should be for the most part. But we also love the contradictory nature of their characters. Doc Martin is a physician who faints at the sight of blood. Consider the anti-heroes like Batman. He’s as messed up as Joker . . . Perhaps if your protagonist always does the right thing in certain situations, put him in one where doing the right thing results in chaos and anarchy, and see what he does.
4. Make her vulnerable.
I stress this in all my workshops. Your protagonist cannot be larger than life if you want you readers to relate to her. I mean, even Superman has his kryptonite. Think about the heroes who appeal to you. Study them, and you’ll quickly see they have vulnerabilities that make them compelling. Do this.
You may think these four traits are necessary only for your protagonist, but in a novel, you can and should use these for all your principle characters: protagonist, opposition, confidante, romantic interest. If you follow this, your characters will jump off the page.