I was talking about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series the other day and what I liked and disliked about it. (Okay, it was mostly what I disliked, but still…) Like a lot of King’s novels, the books in the Dark Tower series are often way too long, too slow, and full of too many pointless descriptions and unnecessary flashbacks. With that said, King is still my favorite author because there is one thing he can still do one thing better than anyone else. That one thing is also why he is as successful as he is.
That one thing is that he can make you care.
When I’m reading an unpublished short story or novel, whether it’s one of my own short stories or someone else’s, one problem I often run into and that is that I just can’t find myself caring about the characters. And after twenty-five-plus years of reading for fun, I think I finally figured why that is.
And it’s actually really simple: successful fiction writers write about the characters. Unsuccessful fiction writers write about what happens to the characters. When I read Stephen King, the characters are no longer characters in a story, they’re real people until I put the book down, even if I’m not getting into the actual story, as was the case in the Dark Tower books.
And that is what all writers should strive for.
Here’s another way to put it. Pick any novel from the sci-fi/fantasy aisle that spends hundreds of pages describing the world or setting. Then look at Harry Potter. Which is more memorable?
My latest short story rejection came this week. Even when I sent it in, I knew there was a pretty good chance it would get rejected. Why? Because before I sent it in, I thought to myself, I don’t care about this character, so why should a potential publisher?
The remedy isn’t a big secret: Make your characters the most important part of the story. That means they must be more important than your setting; even more important than your plot. Make your characters’ emotions and interactions real.
Make your characters drive the plot instead of react to it.
If you do that, and make your characters the driving force of the novel, the plot will mold to fit them and then instead of having a decent story with flat characters, you’ll have a great story where every character plays a part in developing the plot.
And if you’re anything like me, that means you’ve got a lot of work left to do…
So good luck to both of us.
What about you? What do you do to make your characters “real”? Leave a comment and let us know!