I wanted to know not just “what happens next” but –
What happens next to these characters that I've come to know.
I don't think I'm an atypical reader. I do like the books I read to have some kind of plot. But for me what's important isn't what's happening but …
Who is it happening to? And how does that character react?
As a writer, I am thrilled when readers tell me that they've fallen in love with the characters in my Portals books. Because … I also love my characters, and I get a kind of parental glow when somebody tells me that they like my kids.
That's the key to creating characters your readers will at least care about: You as a writer have to care about them first. Because if you don't … and if that care, that love, doesn't show … Why should I as a reader care what happens to them?
Here's the Prime Directive (with apologies to Star Trek) for creating memorable characters: They are not something to hang a plot on. They are people, with minds and thoughts and lives of their own.
Many years ago, I was reading a short story written by an acquaintance. She had done a reasonable job of creating a believable protagonist – then came a snag. The protagonist (I'll call him “John”) did something so totally out of character it stopped me cold.
I told my friend, “I just can't see John doing this.”
She said, “But I need him to do it, because otherwise, the plot won't work.”
That's fine, I told her, but give him a reason to do it. If you've created an upstanding citizen – but you need him to rob a bank later – then give him motive. Rewrite the character to be a bit less upstanding. Have someone kidnap his wife, his sister, his kids, his beloved dog, and force him to rob the bank on pain of death to whatever he loves. Put him through some mind-altering crisis that changes how he thinks, or renders him incapable of recognizing the difference between right and wrong.
But don't just out-of-the-blue have Mr. Straitlaced and Upstanding wake up one morning and decide to rob a bank. Your readers won't buy it.
As a writer, if I'm to make my characters real to my readers, they have to be real to me. Some writers go so far as to write out complete biographies of their major characters – even down to where, or if, this character went to school, what he/she likes for breakfast, hobbies, games …
I don't go into that much detail, but it's mainly because my approach to writing is one of telling my story to myself as I go along. My characters come to me the same way as my friends and acquaintances in the “real world”: I see them, we shake hands, and I learn more about them as we hang out together.
How you get to know your characters isn't as important, I think, as that you do get to know them. Care about them. Love them. Spend some time with them. If you care about them as a writer, then your readers will care about them too.
Anyway … that's my humble opinion. What do you think?
(By the way, the photo above is the new Kat Morales, Corpus Christi, Texas, police detective and human protagonist in my Portals books.)