Early reviews are starting to roll in for my newest release, A Noble Groom (officially releasing next week on April 1). And while I always cringe when I open up those first reviews, not knowing what to expect, I'm also always fascinated to hear reader impressions.
One of the first blog reviews on A Noble Groom was by Dawn Crandall, a fellow inspirational historical author. And when I get reviews by other writers, I tend to cringe even more (especially when they're by someone who writes in my genre!).
As I read Dawn's review, I was relieved. She liked my book! But I also appreciated her insights into what made the book especially memorable for her. Here's what she said:
"I really don’t know how exactly Jody makes reading about two mismatched people working on a farm in the middle of nowhere - so enthralling. But like I said, she does it every time, no matter what she’s writing about.
I know what it is, actually. It’s her characters. Their emotions are so true, their thoughts so amazingly accurate. The situations they find themselves in... so complexly and perfectly orchestrated." (Emphasis mine)
I think Dawn summarized some of my characterization aspects fairly succinctly (thank you Dawn!). Whether she realized it or not, she brought up 3 key points in developing enthralling characters.
1. Make the character's emotions come alive.
To be honest, there isn't an easy way to make character's emotions come alive. I believe developing emotional characters comes from writing out of the passion and emotions that are inside us.
But if I had to list a couple of practical things I do to help bring out my characters emotions, I would list these two:
First, get to know the characters' back stories really well, particularly the things that have hurt them most. When we delve deeply into their past hurts before we start writing, then we'll have more emotional reactions naturally flowing through the present. Of course, we'll only share a fraction of the back story with our readers and in very gradual increments. Nevertheless, those past difficulties will often be the driving force of our character's emotions.
Second, make sure we weave in their emotional reactions to what's going on around them. I try not to gloss over the hurts and pains, but instead thread them in so that the reader never loses touch with what the character is truly feeling.
2. Don't neglect the character's thought-life.
In the era of "show don't tell" I've read too many stories where the characters are acting out the plot, where the external tension and conflict is all there, but the story fails to grip me.
When I stop to analyze those stories, I realize the author has gone to the extreme of the showing. They expect a smart reader will catch on to the character's thoughts (without needing to be told). And so they never (or rarely) let us inside the character's head .
But part of the beauty of books (versus a movie which is all showing), is that we get to go deeper inside our character's minds. We get to understand why they're acting a certain way. We get to hear some of their reactions (that none of the other characters are privy to). And we learn (hopefully in small, palatable snippets) their back stories.
Much of that happens in the thought-life, or what is also known as internal narration. The characters are "speaking" to the reader and letting them in on things that run deeper than mere actions can portray.
And while we do need to show the story happening on stage, we bring our characters to greater fullness when we allow the reader to get inside their heads.
3. Place the characters in the middle of a complex plot.
Dawn said this in her review of A Noble Groom: "I had no idea how Carl and Annalisa were ever going to end up together by the end of the book."
Amidst the development of real feeling and thinking characters, we need to toss them into a plot that seems impossible. Sometimes I get my characters into so much trouble that I don't know how I'm going to get them out (at least realistically and believably!).
A complex plot intertwines the past pains into the present difficulties and challenges the characters to grow. And yet through it all we have to continue to keep the characters real and deep (by threading in their emotions and revealing their thought-life).
My Summary: There are other ways to bring our characters to life (see this post and this post for more character building tips). The point is, we have to move them from stick figures to flesh and blood if we want our readers to care about them.
What about you? What are some ways you bring your characters to life?