5 Tips for Writing Dynamic Characters

I’m currently reading “The Martian” by Andy Weir, and the book’s premise is wonderful–a man’s struggle to survive on foreign soil.  By itself, the plot moves along like a greased roller skate; unfortunately, the characters never do the same.

While reading the book, I became aware of the main character’s lack of growth.  I mean, come on, he’s stranded on Mars, and yet from page one, he’s equipped with all the knowledge and grit needed to overcome every broken vehicle, station, and communication device (There’s no room to grow).  It’s apparent the protagonist is a thinking machine with full emotional stability and a Swiss Army Knife of mechanical ingenuity for every situation.  In other words — he’s too “super” to be human, and that’s how the story begins.

Characters should have room to evolve and become better versions of themselves.  The following tips provide a framework for establishing the “change” process.

Determine the Change Before Writing.

Sometimes characters change before your eyes.  It’s not uncommon for a character to suddenly stand up for himself or to make a choice he’s never made before.  However, as general good practice, the writer should have some idea of how the character will change.  Without plans for how the character might transition, the writer may never create a situation where change is plausible or even attempted.  Deliberateness in writing does not hinder creativity; rather, creativity thrives under intentional planning.

Foreshadow the Change Early.

A character change should not happen spontaneously.  The change must be believable, or the reader will feel betrayed.  To ensure a smooth transition for your reader, it’s best to foreshadow the potential for change early on.  Characters should display subtle emotions or actions that hint toward the possibility for change.  In fact, the reader should be so well-informed of the impending change that he is not surprised when the flip occurs.  Consider this sage advice from writer Kurt Vonnegut:

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Let the reader see a card or two before slamming a royal flush upon the table.

Write the Character’s “Lowest Point.”

Readers want to see the character struggle.  To ensure this occurs to the reader’s satisfaction, early conflict should revolve around the character’s inability to overcome an obstacle due to missing some intrinsic value or quality.  This might be the character’s lack of courage to stand up for a loved one, lack of motivation to change a dire situation, lack of sympathy for some demoralized group, etc.  Make this “low point” in the character’s arc awful and oppressive so that the eventual change is noteworthy in juxtaposition.

Allow Conflict to Drive the Change.

Let the boilerplate of the character’s turmoil rage until change is the only option.  Throughout the narrative, allow the character to come into constant opposition with himself, a struggle that directly relates to the primary conflict of the narrative.  In The Hunger Games trilogy, the political unrest within the protagonist’s district causes her to consistently face doubt, fear, anxiety, and disgust.  These emotions eventually propel the character into a place where change is the only means to survival.  The most believable character transitions are those born from a sense of urgent response to an intrinsic need.  For more information on how to establish conflict in a story, click here.

Reflect on the Change in the Resolution.

Unless you’re guaranteed a multi-book contract, avoid cliffhangers.  Your story ending should provoke wonder but shouldn’t leave the reader so much in the dark that he can’t see a streetlight.  In the very least, the reader should understand the results of the story’s climax and be able to guess the repercussions.  Once your character changes, let the reader get inside the character’s mind to see the effects.  After all, suspense is meant to be satisfied, and if you’ve written a good narrative, your reader will be chewing fingernails, begging for resolution.  Reward the reader for making it to the end.

Conclusion.

Like real people, fictional characters are destined for change.  Give them room to grow, and let them become more than what they ever hoped to be.

What’s the best and most believable character change you’ve read?  Let me know in the comments below.

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How Do I Make My Characters Fall In Love?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the Ant-Man movie.  In the midst of cheesy one-liners, supercharged CGI, and Stan Lee cameos, I found myself thinking about “love” and how it often plays out on screen and in print.  With the intent of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that Ant-Man, like nearly every superhero, has a love interest in the film … and it just doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong.  “Love” as a thematic concept is excellent, and when written correctly, it adds a dynamic to storytelling that is impossible to accomplish through any other means.  The problem with Ant-Man, and many stories like it, is that “love” is forced, and the narrative isn’t improved by its inclusion.

Knowing that love interests are often overdone in writing, it’s difficult for writers to determine how and when to develop feelings of love between characters.  The first question to ask before characters fall in love is…

Does the Story Need the Characters to Fall in Love?

Failure to answer this question is the single greatest reason why “love” often fails in fiction.  In the race to keep the reader attentive, writers use many tricks and strategies to evoke an emotional response.  Unfortunately, this sometimes means making characters fall in love, even when the story doesn’t need it or isn’t moving in that direction.

Characters should fall in love if…

  1. Plot events are intentionally moving in that direction.
  2. Character dynamic is improved in making the match.

Notice that characters should not fall in love for the sake of love itself.  If falling in love enhances the plot or improves character dynamic (the interaction between characters), there are several “tried and true” methods for turning up the heat on character relationships.

Childhood Friends.

Childhood is a magical time in the lives of characters.  It’s a time when physical and emotional changes occur that impact the characters’ attitudes, relationships, and stability throughout the entire narrative.  Use this crucial time frame to give your protagonist a childhood friend.  This friend should grow with the protagonist and share in his/her childhood triumphs and challenges.  In adulthood, this relationship may transform into a believable love, strengthened by mutual life experiences.

Shared Tragedy.

Tragedy produces extreme emotional responses from characters, which makes it an ideal device for building relationships.  Character flaws and weaknesses are exposed during times of turmoil and tragedy.  If characters undergo a tragedy together, they share a unique experience that can strengthen their physical, emotional, and spiritual connection.  The tragedy can take place on a small scale (the death of a loved one) or a large scale (the death of the entire human race), depending on the needs of the story.

Opposites Attract.

Characters with opposing qualities can be written into interesting situations.  If one character smokes and the other does not, the two characters may argue or disagree in dialogue, promoting the possibility that interactions could move into flirtation or a crush.  With opposing characters, it’s easy to force a relationship, but it’s important to allow one to evolve naturally.  Allow your characters to be gently converted to the other’s way of thinking before sealing the deal with a steady relationship.

Isolated Together.

When characters spend an exorbitant amount of time “alone together,” this creates a reliance on the person they are alone with.  In these situations, the writer should allow the characters to develop trust for one another, a virtue that may lead to a more meaningful relationship.  This tactic is especially effective when combined with a shared tragedy (e.g. the characters find themselves stranded together in an isolated region and forced to spend large amounts of time relying on each other for survival).

Conclusion.

Even though fiction is fiction, there must be a certain amount of truth to help the reader suspend disbelief.  If Ant-Man needs to fall in love, the reader better believe it’s possible and necessary.  Fictional love is like real love in that way.