Again, for those of you who have been keeping up, this is the third post in a series about reading like a writer. You can check out the “why” here, and the first post on writing convention right after it. If you’ve already read those, great! Let’s move onto the next thing to pay attention to: characters.
Obviously, characters are extremely important to a successful novel, but even more than that is having intentional characters. There’s nothing worse than writing a character everyone loves and not knowing what exactly you did to make them so damn lovable other than maybe having a character hates and being similarly unable to figure out why. That’s why it’s important to pay so much attention to characters when reading other writer’s work.
(If you know me, you know I’m a pretty big fan of being in control of who your characters are, so this is especially useful for that.)
Recreational readers tend to blindly fall in love with characters. These readers latch onto the idea of a single character and ignore (or simply fail to notice) the things that make up that character. This is fine and dandy for the average reader. However, for the writer-reader, a character should be much more than a fictional human being whose children you want to have. That’s not to say you can’t fall in love with characters, but the beauty of it is you can understand why (other than, of course, Lead Male’s bulging biceps–that goes without saying).
Every character should have a reason for being in the story. As my novel writing professor told me, “every character needs a role in the story, even if his only role is to serve a cup of coffee.” In the real world, we interact with people every day who do not, and will never, play a significant role in our life-story. In a novel, characters without motives only take up valuable word-space. While reading, determine the motives of every character. Figure out why that character is in the story. What roles do the characters play? Why is this character assigned this role?
Every story has deep characters and shallow characters, more commonly referred to as “round” or “flat” characters. The primary characters in the book should be round–they should have more depth to them. They should change throughout the course of the story. They should have to deal with conflict and resolution. Consider the main characters in the book. Are they visibly changing? Do they have to deal with conflict? At the end of the book, can you see a change in the character compared to the beginning? What about the side characters? Are some of the side characters too rounded while the main characters seem flat and boring? If you cannot relate to a main character, he is likely too flat. Identifying how an author develops a character’s depth is a valuable tool to determining how to develop your own round characters.
In order for a reader to connect to a character, the characters must feel realistic. Do the characters in the book feel realistic to you? If so, what makes them realistic? Does their dialogue seem natural and normal? Do they handle conflict in a way that makes sense with their characterization? Do they have understandable relationships and connections to the other characters in the story? Ultimately, at the end of the day, can you think about this character and imagine them in the real world? Characters that you can believe would actually exist, even if these characters exist within an impossible world, are characters people can relate to. If you find yourself struggling with a character you cannot understand, identify why you cannot understand them.
I personally focus a lot on character in my own work. In fact, my characters usually come to me before my plotlines do. When I’m reading, I pay particular attention to how other writers develop their characters because I think it’s just so damn fascinating.