Once a story gets rolling, writer’s block is rare. If you get stuck, perhaps you took a wrong turn somewhere with either the character or plot. Forcing a character to do something s/he resists can be a good sign that the character has come alive. In this case, you can often turn him or her loose to see what s/he wants to do. New plot twists can come out that will surprise even you! If you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you can bet your readers probably won’t, either!
If your plot hits a wall, taking a break to do some research will often open things up again.
Make your characters as different as possible, so they stand out as individuals. This includes their appearance, speech patterns, and personalities. For example, give each one their own pet phrases or expressions. If they all say the same one, even if it’s an expletive, it doesn’t distinguish him or her as an individual. Of course there are some expletives that are more popular than others, and thus pervasive, but if you’re original in some way, it adds a touch of creativity which most readers will appreciate.
Unique appearance that is distinctive and reinforces the character’s personality is helpful to the reader in keeping them sorted out as well. Gestures are another way, whether it’s rolling their eyes or dismissing a statement with a wave of their hand. A unique perfume or aftershave fragrance is another way to bring another sensory detail into the story. Pay attention to the people you know the best and what their individual habits are for ideas.
Make it a habit to “people watch” when you’re in places like the grocery store, the mall, waiting in the doctor’s or dentist’s office, or Walmart. When you see someone who catches your eye, think of how you would describe that person if s/he were in one of your stories. (Try not to stare, it could get you in trouble.)
As they say, truth is stranger than fiction, and you can often see characters far beyond anything you could imagine, unless you’re deep into fantasy writing and this sort of thing comes naturally. Even then, it can fuel your already-fertile imagination. This is also one way to put your time to good use while doing routine errands that can sometimes feel like a nuisance when you’d rather be writing.
Next up on the list of reader gripes is when the characters are all the same. This occurs primarily with inexperienced writers who don’t know how to develop a character properly and just plug a name into the action without bringing him, her, or even it, to life.
Characters should be as distinctive as possible. They shouldn’t look alive, talk alive, or behave alike. The more contrast, the better. Best case, the reader should be able to tell them apart from their dialog alone. Give them speech patterns and mannerisms that make them into a unique person. Interesting characters are what draw readers into the story as much as the plot line. If you don’t care about the people in the story, it has little impact. Building memorable characters is a skill every author should develop.
If your characters have a specific ethnicity, be sure to name them accordingly. For example, if your heroine is from Sweden, naming her Inge contributes more to her persona than naming her Yolanda. This reinforces the reader’s image of the character as well, providing a subtle, subconscious contribution to imagery.
Along similar lines, if your character is unique, an unusual name can likewise reinforce that; conversely, naming a character you want to be seen as “normal” and one your reader can relate to calls for a more common name.
All that “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” business doesn’t necessarily apply to fiction writing.
Giving characters a distinguishing feature or mannerism increases your story’s imagery and provides a handy mechanism to remind readers what they look like. This can be something like their hair color or style; other distinguishing physical features such as eyes or nose; or certain gestures.
The more characters your story has, the more important it is to give them each some sort of “tag” so readers can keep them straight. With the possible exception of red herrings in mysteries, everyone in a story needs to serve a purpose and move the plot along. If they don’t, zap ’em, and if they do, make them memorable.
Remember your main character needs to have a fatal flaw. It doesn’t have to be evil; it could be something like being too honest or outspoken. No one is perfect and to be convincing, your characters shouldn’t be, either. It’s their weaknesses that make them more endearing and real. They also build suspense, an essential ingredient for any story.
If you’re not sure what a character’s fatal flaw might be, take a close look at his or her strengths. Any trait that can be a strength can also be a weakness, if taken to the extreme. Obsessions, for example, can go either way, to a person’s advantage or detriment, depending on the situation. For example, being determined and not giving up can also result in beating the proverbial dead horse.
“Cardboard characters” are those that have no personality. Make sure yours have likes, dislikes, and opinions so they act like real people. If necessary, keep a list of each character’s physical and personality traits on file if they’re not vivid enough in your mind without it. Readers notice if your hero’s eyes are blue on one page and green on another. Same goes for that couch or car! Never underestimate how astute your readers may be! Otherwise you’re likely to find out when they give you a lousy review.
Using astrology for character development is helpful and fun. If you’re not familiar with the characteristics of the various zodiac signs, a book like my “Whobeda’s Guide to Basic Astrology” can help. Get your copy here.
If you already have an idea what your character is like, it’s usually not too difficult to fit him or her with a Sun sign. You can find some basics here. This will be their core being and provide considerable help regarding how they’ll react to certain situations. If you define a birth date for him, it’s fun to get a natal chart reading from an astrology site like mine, ValkyrieAstrology.com, which will give you even more in-depth information about your character, perhaps even hinting at events in your story.
Actually, it was writing a novel that first introduced me to astrology. One of my characters was into it, forcing me to do some research. I discovered it worked as well as how handy it was for defining characters. It’s quite eerie how well it works, which you can read above in a previous blog.
Fully developing your backstories always pays off. Not only do they contribute to the quality of your characters and plot; you can always offer them as freebies to potential readers. Some background information can be referred to in your main story, but including too much can bog it down. Some can be dropped in here and there as flashbacks. However, lengthy explanations of past experiences that influenced the character aren’t always relevant to the story at hand. Nonetheless, if they’re interesting you can use them as a short story/teaser to readers who visit your website or sign up for your newsletter.