Getting a character into your story can be tricky business. You’ve brainstormed and free written like a crazy person and you’ve learned what your characters’ voices sound like. You’ve used those people to help create an engaging story that will suck your readers in and refuse to let them go. But, now, you have to figure out how to bridge the gap and actually put your characters into that story.
I think the most important thing I can tell you is to be patient. Be deliberate. Do not push too hard or too quickly. We put so much work into our characters and we want our readers to know all about them. We want readers to know who our characters are and why they are so important to the story. We want to bring readers up to speed very quickly so we can get on with telling the story.
Resist the urge to do this. In real life, we discover people by what they do. People don’t hand out autobiographies so others will understand their motivations and quirks. We discover that stuff over time by the way people talk, the things they say, and the things they do or don’t do.
This is just as true with your characters. If they are arrogant, let it come out in the speech. If they are thoughtless, let their behavior show it. Allow other characters to react to what they do. But, above all, let your readers get to know your characters naturally. Reveal only what you need to reveal. I believe the best characters are the ones we actually get to know, rather than the ones we know about.
There will be cases, however, where backstory is unavoidable. There will be situations where it’s vital. As an example, one of the characters in The Timekeeper’s Son does something that will have most moms scratching their heads because it seems so unnatural. It goes against every maternal instinct they have and it threatens to make her unbelievable. Because of that, I had to deliver a dramatic bit of backstory so I could keep that from happening. I needed my readers to say, “Oh, I see why she did that. That makes total sense.”
That is a bit of an extreme example. There are certainly other cases that are less severe. Even still, my suggestion is that you avoid backstory if there is another way. If you can’t avoid it, reveal it through action and dialog. Create a scene where the backstory is relevant and show it rather than telling it. And if you have to tell it, try to do it in small chunks.
More than anything, I guess I’m saying that I hate it when a new character is introduced and the author sidetracks for a page or three telling you all about her. It feels like the author is trying to convince me there is a good reason for the character to be in the story. A better way to do that is to make the character contribute to the story in some way. If they do that, then there isn’t any room for doubt as to whether or not they should be there. If background has to be shared, do it through action or in little bits.
Another important factor with characters is the need to be subtle. Resist the urge to create stereotypes. Resist the urge to overdo characters’ personalities so that people will get the point. In ancient Greece, actors wore caricature masks that exaggerated a particular emotion. They would have gigantic smiles or frowns or whatever. This was because people were often far away and couldn’t see facial expressions.
Don’t do this in your writing. Don’t do it. It will make your characters seem contrived and, even worse, annoying. People won’t like or hate your characters, at least in a good way. They will not want to spend time with them or get to know them. Aside from not having a compelling story, this is the quickest way to lose readers.
Almost as important as not overdoing it is not underdoing it – particularly with emotion. Your readers will know when they expect emotion. And they will know when they don’t. Use your knowledge of your characters to know when they are apt to react emotionally or not. Also, use that knowledge to know what “emotional” means. Some characters will cry anytime you say boo. Other characters could lose all their friends and family and still not cry, in public at least. Those people might express anger or they might withdraw. Know your characters and stay true to them. Do NOT make them react in a way that is convenient for the story.
So, now, we come full circle back to a basic question. How do you know? How can you tell if you’ve pulled it off and your characters are engaging? I’m not sure I can really tell you that. I think you will instinctively know. When you read your story, are there places that bug you and you can’t quite figure out why? I had that problem. One of my characters was bothering me. He felt a little flat to me and I wasn’t sure why.
I let some beta readers read the story and guess what? One of them called me on it. She said one of the characters was hard to connect with. Guess which one? Yep, the one I was questioning. You want to know a secret? He was the character I spent the least amount of time developing. I had hoped that I was being too critical and that no one would notice. Yeah, um… bad plan. Readers are smarter than that.
The point I’m trying to make is to trust your instincts. You’ve got them, I know you do. Sometimes, they can be a little hard to hear over all the noise. Sometimes that noise is our anxiousness to get the story finished. Sometimes it is our desire to get it perfect. Sometimes, it is a sick feeling because you’ve got both going on. But if you can get those things to quiet down so you can listen to what your gut has to say, you’ll know whether you’ve gotten it right.