Today’s guest post is by author, editor and writing instructor C. S. Lakin (@cslakin). Her new online video course, Your Cast of Characters, teaches writers how to populate their novels with the perfect cast.
Fiction writers are told to get their readers to bond quickly with their characters—in particular the protagonist. In few pages, they must make the hero of their story empathetic, relatable, and understandable.
Wow, that’s a herculean task. How long does it take us to truly “get” a person we meet? Five minutes? An hour?
While some of us are intuitive and savvy and feel we can “size up” a stranger in record time, truth is people are complex, they show a persona that may mask who they are underneath, and they may not reveal all that much at first (or ever).
Yet … I recall a restauranteur friend of mine who declared confidently that, after serving dinners to thousands of patrons over the years, she could tell everything about a couple in the first five minutes of their ordering a meal. What kind of tension was simmering between them, how they felt about each other, status dynamics—those kinds of things.
After running a bed and breakfast for 13 years and hosting more than 20,000 guests (essentially living with us in our home), I can attest that my husband and I are pretty good at figuring people out within minutes.
There are things we all pick up intuitively right away when we meet someone, and after we observe their body language, speech, gestures, and demeanor, we formulate at least a sketchy impression. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, explores just how much wisdom and accuracy we bring to those initial impressions. It may astonish you.
But here’s the challenge for us writers.
We have to put words on a page that will convey enough for our readers to do similarly.
How can that be done when the reader can’t see our characters, pick up on those nuances of gesture and bearing and expression?
Last thing we want to do is ramble for pages describing clothing and eye color, then compounding the mess with long passages of backstory and explanation.
There are lots of great books and podcast episodes and courses that teach character development, and much is worth gleaning and applying in your writing. But I’d like to present you with a simple, basic foundation you can work from—one that will help achieve this quick familiarity with all your characters.
If you start working on a character idea, instead of thinking of how they look or their general personality type, try focusing on the three Ms. Let’s take a brief look.
This speaks to the character’s overall state of mind, attitude, present concern. When you introduce a character, ask: What is bothering him right now in his life? What is he most concerned with? A character that is happy and carefree, lacking any concern or inner conflict, is a boring character. What situation can you put this character in that will best hint at her state of mind? Make that a factor when brainstorming your scene.
Underneath or driving that mindset is motivation. Your character wants or needs something. Everything we do is sparked by some need or desire. Right now I’d love to have a root beer float. The hot sun and my thirst create that desire, and so I am moved to go inside and reach for the vanilla ice cream.
Our characters—all of them—need to think, speak, and behave based on motivation. If you can hint at what is pressing them to do what they are doing in any given moment, that goes a long way to helping readers “get” your character.
The third M is mood. Your character’s mood is, of course, affected by his mindset. Thoughts lead to feelings. If I think about how George belittled me yesterday, the anger and humiliation will well up. While that may not be motivating what I’m presently doing right now, it’s going to affect my state of mind.
Let’s take a look at the opening to Jon Cohen’s novel Harry’s Trees. See if you can pick up indications of these three M’s, without knowing anything about the premise.
One year had passed, four gray, indistinguishable seasons, and Harry had missed not a single day of work, because what was he going to do at home? Home: the place where he ate peanut butter on stale crackers and fell asleep in the wingback chair beside the fireplace that still contained the half-charred log that Beth had tossed onto the grate the night before she was killed. Harry would lurch awake, rise stiffly, shower or not shower and drive to work before dawn.
Really, was there a better way to punish himself? He would work for the Forest Service until he was sixty-five. No, the way the world was going they’d keep raising the age of retirement—he’d work until he was seventy, eighty, ninety. Perfect. Decade upon decade, clacking away on his keyboard until his heart sputtered out, his corpse sitting there for years, no one noticing the gnarled finger frozen above the delete key. …
Even Bob Jackson, who dodged, whined, griped and shirked his way through every workday, felt a smirking pity whenever he emailed Harry a huge batch of files or plopped a fresh stack of fat folders onto his desk.
“Christ, Harry, you’re allowed to, like, get up and take a leak once in a while, you know.” Bob bit off a sliver of fingernail and swallowed it like an egret gulping a minnow.
How pathetic to be pitied by Bob Jackson, a creature who chewed his nails to slimy nubs, picked his nose with the insouciance of a three-year-old and used spit to finger-smooth the four hairs of his comb-over. But the life-form that was Bob no longer rankled Harry, nor did Harry notice the widening ring of cubicles around him that had gone vacant as his fellow workers jockeyed for less psychologically intense office real estate. Who wanted to sit near a black hole, to be vortexed into that? Sure, the guy’s wife had died in a spectacular freak accident but, yikes. And although no one actually said it—the upside? Shell-shocked Harry Crane was a bottomless dumpster for crappy assignments. Forest initiatives, SOPA reports? NFS studies, FSI summaries, process predicament reviews? Turf ’em to The Widower!
What do you notice right off? I hope it’s that this passage is written in deep POV. Every line of a scene is your character’s voice (or should be), and if you aren’t writing your scenes like this, you are not going to be able to adequately convey the three Ms. This applies to first- and third-person POV.
The narrative is Harry’s stream of thought, and we pick up on his mindset and mood right away. His wry, cynical—even fatalistic—humor is a mask for his pain. The author doesn’t tell us “Harry is moping and cynical because his wife died, and he thinks life is futile.” That would be “telling” instead of “showing.”
What is shown is his mood by the choice of words and phrasing. Pay attention to this. Words create mood. The way Harry views his coworkers reveals a lot about Harry’s mindset. He imagines that they pity him and even despise him. Yet we sense it’s not they who think he’s pathetic but Harry himself. He is projecting his own feelings onto them.
Harry’s mindset is shown by how he spends time at home, eating crackers and peanut butter and sleeping in the chair by a fireplace he hasn’t dared light since his wife died. We sense that time and life has screeched to a halt for Harry. Motivation? He has nothing to live for anymore. He is on autopilot. He will keep working until he dies because there is nothing else to do.
We also get a hint of his mood and mindset when he mentions that this is his punishment, implying he feels some guilt over his wife’s death. The picture of his corpse left ignored at his desk with the finger frozen over the Delete key makes us wonder: What did he do or fail to do that caused Beth’s death?
All in all, Harry feels he is getting what he deserves. He accepts this as his fate with bitterness and pain. We feel all this through his description of his daily work routine.
Five paragraphs. How well do you feel you know Harry? Does he inspire empathy in you? Do you feel like you “get” him right away? I do.
Do spend gobs of time developing your characters. Go deep and wide with their past wounds and present concerns. But focus primarily on these three Ms if you want to draw your readers into your story. Characters with motivation, core need, something driving them, unsettling them, are characters readers care about.
What lines in that passage helped you “get” Harry right away? Share in the comments.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out C.S. Lakin’s new online video course, Your Cast of Characters, which teaches writers how to populate their novels with the perfect cast.
C. S. Lakin is a writing coach, workshop instructor, and award-winning author of 30+ books and blogger at Live Write Thrive (where you can find more than one million words on novel craft). Her Writer’s Toolbox series of books teach the craft of fiction, and her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than a thousand writers. She also works as a book copyeditor and does more than 200 critiques a year for writers, agents, and publishers in six continents (she’s still waiting for someone in Antarctica to hire her …).