Creating Strong Characters—Some Typical Challenges

Guest Post by Jack SmithWrite and Revise for Publication

To write a publishable novel, you must cover a lot of bases.  This means handling a number of fictional elements seamlessly.  Chief among these is creating a strong protagonist, one that is believable as well as compelling.

It’s one thing to speak of a strong character in the abstract, another to create one in a novel.  If you’re like most writers, you continuously face any number of challenges, and since each novel is different, each set of challenges is different.

There are, of course, some standard character issues every writer eventually faces.

And so let’s mull over some of these . . .

  • Is your protagonist stereotypical? Cardboard?  And if so, how could you make this character more complex?  Which character traits would you add to round out your character more?  Should you make your character ambivalent at times?  Should you work in a few contradictory elements that might be explained in some way?  Should your character be confused, muddled, perplexed at times—like most people are?  Should your protagonist exhibit different reactions to antagonists than the ones you’ve presently shown?
  • Related to the foregoing, is your protagonist too predictable? If so, can you find ways to provide more suspense?  In dialogue perhaps?  In actions?  In character thoughts?
  • If your protagonist is a so-called bad guy, not sympathetic, do you find ways to keep the reader’s interest? If the reader’s not exactly going to root for this character, do you make the character compelling enough that the reader just has to follow along—to see what’s about to occur next?  Do you make the bad guy character emblematic of a particular culture or ethos—organized crime perhaps, so that the reader will most likely say, “Okay, now I’ve got a better handle on how this works. . .” (Consider The Sopranos.)
  • Do your scenes reveal your protagonist’s chief characteristics but also drive the plot? Would different scenes work better to accomplish both of these?  Could you work in different or additional material within these scenes to better accomplish these two objectives?
  • Do you give your protagonist enough inner life? Most readers like to sense a character’s inner being, especially if this involves internal conflict.  If you do manage to do this, how gripping is your internal sphere for this character?  Do you capture character thoughts and feelings with some force?  Doing so takes a good handle on expository prose.
  • Does your protagonist change enough? Given the nature of the experiences your protagonist has gone through, should your character be more profoundly affected?  But where is the line between just enough and too much?  It’s most likely not enough if your protagonist is hardly affected by a siege of devastating outcomes; it’s most likely too much if s/he becomes somebody totally new without a vestige left of his/her former self.  It’s hard to locate the believable slot on the scale of character change, zero to one hundred, but that’s what you’ve got to do.  Once you know the answer to this, you’ll have a believable character arc in hand.

If a novel is going to be marketable, it must have a protagonist that keeps readers reading.  Even if a novel is idea-driven, most readers want a character that pulls them in.  (Roquentin of Sartre’s Nausea pulls me in.)  The subjective element always comes into play, of course, and clearly if you pass your work from reader to reader, you will get different responses, different judgments on how well you’ve developed your character.  It feels good when there’s common ground on both strengths and weaknesses.  Ultimately, of course, you as the writer must be the final judge.

Jack Smith is author of the novel Hog to Hog, which won the George Garrett FictionJack-SmithPrize (Texas Review Press. 2008), and is also the author of Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction, published earlier this year by Writer’s Digest. His novel ICON was published in June 2014 by Serving House Books.

Over the years, Smith’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, Night Train, Texas Review, and Southern Review, to name a few. He has also written some 20 articles for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, as well as a dozen or so pieces for The Writer.He has published reviews in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, American Review, Mid-American Review, and the Iowa Review.

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8 thoughts on “Creating Strong Characters—Some Typical Challenges

  1. Jack–
    You pose the following question to the writer: “Do you make the bad guy emblematic of a particular culture or ethos–organized crime, perhaps,” in order to aid the reader’s understanding. You then refer to the Sopranos to make your point. I think, though, it should also be said that it’s precisely because Tony Soprano is NOT emblematic of crime culture that explains why so many viewers are enthralled by him. He’s a psycho-social basket case, as is his crazy sister, his mother, uncle, etc.
    In my suspense novels, I do everything I can to make sure my bad guys are NOT emblematic. I want them to come off as unique, unaligned to any particular subset of what can be called crime culture. Aside from committing crimes, with two notable exceptions my bad guys aren’t career criminals at all. They’re just characters with the parts missing–or added–that keep others on the straight and narrow.

    1. Thanks, Barry. I’m seeing Tony Soprano as emblematic of the crime culture, but much more sympathetic than certain other characters. But he’s a criminal, surely and reveals something about the mob. But we find some human elements in him, room for empathy if not sympathy. Anywhere, that’s where I’m coming from….

  2. Excellent advice. I’m going through NaNo right now and am trying to tweak the characters as they go along. I’ve been leaving notes as I go about how to change things in earlier chapters to strengthen the changes they’re experiencing :)

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