When writing fiction it is the central character or characters who carry the story. Your readers have to become so involved in their lives that they don’t want to put the book down. When an author does a really good job the reader is sorry when the book ends, it is a physical wrench to tear yourself away from the character. When the author does a bad job the reader quickly loses interest in the book, they don’t care about the character or their life.
So what is it about a character that makes us love them – or even love to hate them. Readers want to read about characters they can identify with – characters that are as flawed as real people are, characters that struggle and characters that change through the book. The woman who is afraid to ride who wins a big event. The snobby bitch who learns to let others in. Someone who is always unlucky in love who finally finds the perfect mate.
Most of the time, in fiction the characters are changing for the better. But there’s also room for characters who change for the worse or who are not nice, Derry Blake in Jacqui Broderick’s novels is a great example of a handsome rake who we love to hate.
Of course there are characters who don’t change – they simply are who they are – Grace Tallis in Sarah Lewis’s book Hell Hath No Fury, is a detective, flawed and struggling with a bad relationship, but that never changes, what intrigues readers are the challenges she deals with.
But these characters can be difficult to write well—and they’re more the exception than the rule. So let’s focus on how the character’s struggle can grip your readers and bring them on a roller coaster love affair with your protagonist.
When you’re first getting to know your character, you might be tempted to think only about who a character is. But to keep your characters interesting you must also think about what your character can become. How will this character respond when shown they are wrong or dysfunctional in some way and are offered a better alternative?
People don’t like to change. It’s so much easier to stay as we are, even if it’s damaging us. People stay forever in dreadful relationships, horses stay in burning barns – what is familiar is safe. In fiction, as in life, people resist change.
We resist right up until the moment when it hurts too much. Eventually the pain and consequences become too much and a change is forced. Your job as an author is to force your character to feel that pain. Poke and prod and create emotional pain until the only option for the character is to begin the inner journey to change.
The Inner Journey
In fiction terms, a character’s transformation is called his inner journey or character arc, an odyssey which sends them through a virtual spin dryer and brings them out the other side stronger and re-born.
A character’s inner journey has five major phases:
• Initial Condition (the dilemma)
• Inciting Event
• Moment of Truth
• Final State.
The five phases are steps on a voyage between two points: the dilemma and the moment of truth. The journey itself is a measure of where the character is along the progression between these two points.
The dilemma is the thing that is wrong with your character, the thing that is messing up your character’s life.
You as novelist decide you’re going to force your character to deal with it. So you begin sending difficulties into the character’s life. Make it progressively harder for them to ignore the folly of the choices they are making. Through the course of the novel you will show the character clearly how the situation is harming them and you will show her the way forward.
It’s that hanging-in-the-balance that keeps your readers engaged. The character looks as if they will never attain resolution or change.
Moment of Truth:
Your novel is about what your main character decides at her moment of truth. Everything else is just the vehicle to drive them to that penultimate moment.
The resolution of the story when the character has changed, altered the destructive course of action and are re-born.