5 ways to make your characters pop off the page

Michael Mohr

by Michael Mohr

In 2013, New York Times notable author David Corbett published a sparkling, extremely helpful nonfiction writer’s guide entitled The Art of Character.

In this book, he touches on many aspects of fine, intelligent, deep, 3-D characterization not only for writing books—literature—but for other mediums, thus the subtitle of the work: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. Amongst the nearly 400 pages of astute, deft suggestions concerning how to pen purposeful, profound people on the page, Corbett uses Greek tragedy, modern psychoanalysis, and the psychology of myth to demonstrate, from many vantage points, how one can deepen their conception and understanding of literary characters.

One of the most helpful conceptions and guidelines, in my humble opinion, is his “Five Cornerstones of Characterization.” I realized that much of what Corbett writes about is, for the most part, intuitive. And yet, as a freelance book editor, I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I read year-round that lack the basic essentials of these five incredibly helpful (and I’d vote just about necessary) points. It is far too easy for a novel to begin delving, blurring into the far-reaching and terrible Death Land of anecdote, veering dangerously far away from any semblance of “plot” or “deep characterization.”

We all want for readers to finish our books—and to write great, compelling characters that almost literally jump off the page.

That’s not to say that some great works of literature lack essential plot: see On the Road and The Sun Also Rises. But these books contain fantastic, powerful characters which push us to both empathize, understand, care, and thus keep turning the pages. And that is, I believe, the most important, crucial point here: A writer’s job is to make a reader care. If we don’t care about your characters the fact of the matter is we’re going to stop reading. Simple as that.

You can write a more literary, character-driven novel—even to a certain extent devoid of plot—but it still must contain strong, believable, well-rounded, and developed characters, must contain real drama, must play with tension and conflict, must draw us in and hold us, make us give a crap about who and why.

Therefore, I posit that character, itself, is the most important ingredient of a novel. Without plot, you can still survive with deep characters we care about, as mentioned above. But with 2-D, flat, weak characters we can’t relate to and we don’t care about, you are dead in the literary water. (Best bet, however, is to have both good characters and a solid plot.)

Your main character must have a desire, and the story must be driven principally by that desire.

Here are the slightly edited Five Cornerstones of Characterization, as provided by David Corbett:

  1. The character needs or wants something
  2. She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan for overcoming that difficulty
  3. She exhibits a seeming contradiction
  4. Something unexpected happens (he makes a mistake), which renders him vulnerable. (He may even be hurt, enhancing this impression)
  5. There is a secret

The main thing here, and what Corbett constantly mentions, is this notion of desire. The main character—your protagonist—must have some kind of need, want, or desire driving him or her forward. There must be something they’re trying to get: love (internal or external), redemption, salvation, revenge, a lover’s attention, a best friend, success.

Corbett talks about internal vs. external needs and wants, and how the two often play against each other. There is often a clear exterior desire, which is preferred so that readers have a clear notion of the main character’s drive. But underneath that external desire is something deeper, a more internal yearning that might either add to the external want or even play against it (which creates fantastic tension).

The point here is that your main character must have a desire and the story must be driven principally by that desire. As we go along, we’ll discover, bit by bit, that a deeper internal desire exists within the character’s interior world. Cornerstone #2 suggests that the character will soon bump up against the obvious: a series of hurdles preventing them from achieving their goal of getting what they desire (externally or internally). This creates drama and tension. When a character has something they want and they try to get that thing and are prevented from getting it due to another character who has an opposing desire, well, now we have good drama. This is the stuff of great fiction (like The Hunger Games and The Girl on the Train).

Bottom line: if we don’t buy your characters—if we can’t envision them existing in real life, with all our problems, insecurities, failures, joys, loves, pride—we’ll never care enough to finish your book.

And that’s what we all want: for readers to finish our books! And to write great, compelling characters that almost literally jump off the page.

Michael Mohr is a published, Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, former literary agent’s assistant, and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in Concho River Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable, Fiction Magazines, Tincture, and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, Writer Unboxed, Creative Penn, and MASH. A recent editing client accomplishment is a memoir, White American Youth, by Christian Picciolini, a former neo Nazi who changed his life. (Hachette, Dec 26, 2017.) Christian’s docuseries, “Breaking Hate,” is airing now on MSNBC. Michael edits memoir, adult literary and commercial novels, YA and suspense/thriller. His writing/editing website is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.

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