Saturday, 16 July 2011

Elements of Great Storytelling - Character Development

A few months ago, I experienced a writer's watershed of sorts. It all began with the decision to participate in a local writer's group session.

Now, I've never really been to one before - I'm a bit of a loner by nature, especially when I'm into my writing. This time, something made me think, why not?

And thus did chance play its hand:) I met a fellow writer who kindly met up with me later and volunteered to critique a short story of mine.

Our conversation illuminated something. I'd always felt that an important storytelling element has been missing in much of my work, especially in my novels, but I could never put my finger on what it was. Friends and family often observed that I can be very long-winded, just a bit vague, and that my stories aren't gripping enough. But, somehow, I couldn't understand what they meant.

I mean, to me, my stories were beautifully written, elegant, full of little quirks and humour and wit. Why weren't they gripping my readers?

What my writing friend pointed out made a writerly lightbulb in my head go off.

On the first page of the short story he was critiquing, he pointed out two things:

a) I went on and on about what my protagonist thought of a receptionist in the room with her (ie long-windedness)

b) it was unrealistic for someone to expect a receptionist to start a conversation with them in a waiting room (which was what my protagonist expected).

I explained to my friend that the entire scene was meant to convey the protagonist's paranoid and attention-seeking psyche. He, accurately, pointed out that this hadn't come across to the reader. And then it hit me:

I'd over-described the protagonist's environment, and under-described the protagonist herself. And this was a pattern in ALL my stories.

Wow! Talk about feeling bad and excited at the same time! I felt bad of course because I had severely neglected one of the strongest elements of great storytelling - the main character itself. Excited because, hey, this could be fixed!

Yes, I would have to engage in rather massive rewrites, but it was a fixable problem, and character development at this point could only make my stories shine once I got it done.

The short stories were revisited pretty quickly. The novels - not as fast as I'd have liked, but revisions are now going surprisingly smoothly. Once I got down to focusing on the main character instead of her surroundings, what needed to change became extremely clear. The plot holes, the unrealistic moments, the draggy prose - everything was easier to spot and remove/amend because it detracted from my protagonist's motivations and character arc. And solidifying my character's psychological make-up added a wonderful depth to the tale that 'completed' the vision I'd always had of it.

The basic rule of thumb I've drawn from this experience is: writing a story is ultimately about writing a character.

We read Lucas, JK Rowling, Agatha Christie's mysteries etc because we want to know what happens to Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and Hercule Poirot. Random things happening to a random character just doesn't cut it - we want to read about events happening to the characters we love. And to fall in love with a character, they have to be extremely well-written, holistic - they have to resonate with their human readers.

There's a lot of literature out there about creating and executing a three dimensional protagonist that resonates with the reader. Believe me, after the above hit me, I have been googling and reading like mad, and have been pretty pleased at what I've been learning so far. A great site to check out is of course There's a lot of good stuff there. Though I haven't gone through the 'six core competencies' advocated by Larry Brooks in any detail yet, the series on characterisation is certainly very helpful. Do check out this post in particular for some great ideas on getting the kinks out of your characterisation. Ha nice line that:)

*sigh* I still shake my head at the thought that I had made everything else in my story into the main character EXCEPT the main character itself. I'm just grateful the lightbulb went off before yet another year had passed. Now, to reconstruct my main character so that readers of all ages (or perhaps just my target group:D) can fall in love with her... just as I fell in love with her in the world of my imagination so long ago:)

Share/Bookmark Subscribe

No comments: