What’s the most important part of any fiction novel? The genre? Location? Style? Maybe the premise? Not in my opinion. In my opinion, the most important part of every fiction novel is: the characters.
If we care about the characters, if we connect with them, then the other aspects merely compliment and enhance these people who we are on a journey with.
From an authors point of view, we have to be willing to spend an awful lot of time with these people, months, sometimes years, getting to know them. While we work with them, they are our best friends, our lovers, and our allies. They are our colleagues and they are our family. They are us and we are them.
So, let’s start with nothing. Try to recall how you feel before you open a book, when you’ve maybe read the blurb but really don’t know anything about who is in the book or what they’re going to go through, when you’re completely clueless. Then think about your last book hangover, when you really didn’t want to close the book because then you knew it was going to be over. When you didn’t want to put it down. When you cared so much about these characters that you couldn’t get them out of your head for days and lay awake at night thinking about them. Quite a transition, isn’t it?
We rarely fixate on the location or even the specific storyline of a book for too long. The characters are what linger with us. As humans, the psychic connection is crucial. In real life, there’s not always a physical reason for you to care for someone, but we still do care about them.
Developing this kind of connection between reader and character is very important in ensuring the most satisfying reading experience.
So, how do we create a character? For the most part physical attributes aren’t really very important, they are window dressing. Sometimes a vision of a character will be what first appears, but the look of a character isn’t what makes them complete. We don’t connect because we know someone is six foot tall and has blue eyes.
To write a character that readers can connect with you have to understand the essence of them. You have to be able to live in their head and understand their motivations, their actions, and their mannerisms etc. Why do they use certain words? What are their habits and ambitions? It’s not enough to keep a bio, to have a list of facts about upbringing and environment. We can’t simply list their CV, likes and dislikes, and think that a collection of facts will bring about a relationship between reader and character.
All of us are flawed and so characters have to be flawed too. They are not perfect. They are not (depending on the genre) omnipotent and can’t necessarily read the mind of a person who may be hurting, or be able to see danger coming from around the corner. Characters have to be thrown off-guard and out of their comfort zone, when we as readers understand that they are mentally or emotionally struggling but they battle on then we start to root for them.
But it starts with a link. The writer has to be linked to the character, we have to be able to live in their head and have them inhabit ours. Imagining how they would react in even the most mundane of circumstances helps with that, talking to them, writing scenes that will never make the book, all of these things help to develop a trust and understanding between character and reader, because it’s only when the author cares about the character that the reader will too.
This goes for the villains too. Care doesn’t have to be tender. You have to understand the motivations, and the history, of your antagonist as well as you do for the protagonist, it gives the relationship between those characters balance.
The writer, and the reader, should always remember that these characters are only given life when they are experienced and remembered. They can only feel if you feel. You are their heartbeat and their soul inhabits yours. Take a piece of your favourite characters with you wherever they go – they’ll appreciate the adventure.
Good luck on your adventures,