Are you building characters…or “stifling” them?
There is no one key to developing great characters. So much of a character’s growth happens organically, especially when fostered by a well-read, shrewd author who’s put herself in the character’s shoes—again and again and again—as she crafts their story. What makes a character great? Well, what makes a person great? And start there.
Consider how your character speaks. Consider how he thinks. These elements shape his voice, which should be distinct, perhaps so distinct the character himself manifests and nearly leaps off the page.
And magic happens. 🌟
When you can do that, you can then make a reader feel rooted within the character’s actual, physical body. We can see, hear, feel, taste…just as he does. We hurt as he does. We love as deeply—without the need to “filter” his senses via too-easy, too-distant literary conveyance. Great characters make us care. A reader who cares, turns pages…
Ask your character questions. Better, have a trusted friend or beta reader “interview” your character for you. What’s important to her? What traumas has she overcome—or is she trying to overcome? What excites her? What holds her back? Why?
It’s important to marinate upon your character’s nature, her backstory, her state of mind. Do this for your heroine and your hero, equally. What compels him to act and why? What brings him to a grinding halt…and why? (Are you grasping a theme here? 😇)
Now to the lesson: Are you building characters…or stifling them?
Reveal the character by what they do, not what they don’t do.
I’m talking specifically about words that “stifle” character movement. Words like: stifled (of course), tried to, attempted, threatened to, struggled, etc. These words tell readers what a character didn’t do, which can sometimes be as revealing as what the character did, but not often. Use these only sparingly.
Instead, show us what the character does, or did. What they do builds character. What they stop themselves from doing is much less effective—usually—in establishing and building character. (I say “usually” because I don’t believe in strict rules in fiction writing. Authors who follow all the rules risk sounding stilted, contrived, and uninteresting. Like, please don’t count my adverbs here. 😆 I believe in balance. I believe in awareness. This is something to be aware of so it’s not overdone. Yes? Okay.)
Consider the following examples. These are procured directly from a manuscript I’m currently editing, and with the author’s blessing to reproduce them here:
- Naime stifled the urge to scream. 👉 Naime bit her cheek.
- Naime stifled the sigh so desperate to escape her, and placed that envelope with Cemil’s. 👉 Naime slid a cursory glance at his proposal, then placed the envelope with Cemil’s.
- Tears threatened to overwhelm her. He kissed the corners of her eyes where they gathered. 👉 Tears sprang to her eyes and he kissed the corners where they gathered. Or, He kissed the corners of her eyes where tears had gathered.
- Makram tried to keep his voice level, but struggled to do so past the pain his brother’s words had caused. 👉 Makram leveled his voice, pushing past the pain his brother’s words had caused.
- Naime was certain she heard Ihsan snort. It almost brought a smile to her face that she was barely able to stifle. 👉 Naime was certain she heard Ihsan snort. It almost brought a smile to her face.
As you review these examples, there’s something else to keep in mind—something important to observe. The edited lines are shorter—more concise. (Did you notice?) Wherever possible, try to say more by saying less. Too much of this could make your prose feel a bit choppy, so balance is key, but in general, the ability to say more by saying less adds punch to your story. The “long way of saying something” is hardly ever the most impactful.
Has this been helpful? Enlightening? I hope so. And I hope, when you hire an editor to analyze your work, she gives it the careful attention you deserve. Not just hunting down typos. But examining each turn of phrase, each word—not intrusively, but mindfully. Respectfully. As you did.
If you’re looking for such a partner and haven’t found her yet, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to start a conversation. 💖
A note about the author
Fantasy Romance author J. D. Evans is a ROCK STAR for allowing me to use passages from her work-in-progress, Reign & Ruin, to demonstrate these principles. (She even let me keep the characters’ names!!) I am grateful for her bravery and thick skin—two qualities present in the best of writers. Sincerely. When reading J. D.’s book I must’ve stopped a hundred times to moon over lines of prose I admired; moments I could feel in my legs and my chest and bursting from my own skin. No draft is perfect, but hers came darn close. (I would not have used her as an example if this weren’t all true.) I am head over heels for Naime and Makram, and I have loved our collaboration! ⭐
Reign & Ruin is the first installment from J. D. Evans’ fantasy romance series, Mages of the Wheel. Stay tuned for its upcoming release!! 😊