Pirates + interpersonal conflict = emotionally resonant storytelling
Getting to know the characters you’re writing is one thing. It’s a Very Important Thing, and if you’re looking for ways to dig in and uncover the fine details that bring your character to life – from the simple habits that make them tick to the big ideas that shape the way they see themselves and the world around them – I’ve written about that here and here and also here.
But now, armed with in-depth information about your protagonist’s favourite colour, their date of birth, extended family, political affiliation, star signs and all the rest, the question becomes: how do you allow this fully rounded, complex and layered sentient being to reveal themselves to your reader? How do you demonstrate their character development across the course of your narrative, so that the person we meet in the first act is appreciably changed by the time we arrive at the end? How do we manifest that change in a way that’s comprehensible to readers without overstating or devolving into huge chunks of exposition?
I’m glad you asked. And not just because it offers me the excuse to dig into a bit of character analysis in my absolute favourite show. Partly that, too. But it’s relevant, I swear.
Warning: major spoilers follow for Season 1* of Our Flag Means Death. I’m going to be discussing elements of the two central characters’ arcs that are absolutely fundamental to the heart of the story, so if you haven’t seen it and you’re planning to… probably go and watch it before you read on. (You can thank me later.)
How to create depth and engagement... by acting like a two-year-old
This is the hill I will die on: great characters can paper over a flimsy plot, but a great plot can’t disguise underdeveloped characterisation.
Characters are the most important tool in a writer’s arsenal. They’re the mechanism through which a reader enters your world; they’re the vehicle through which your reader will travel the narrative journey you’ve laid out. They don’t have to be likeable (CF: Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, who are just relentlessly awful to everyone they meet, and still manage to take the top spot in a poll of literature’s greatest lovers) and we absolutely do not have to agree with everything they say or do. But they must be recognisable.
3-dimensional characters are essential to any good story. Just don’t forget about the villain*.
When it comes to writing fiction that grabs the reader and catapults them into the world you’ve created, the most powerful tool in your arsenal is character work. Lots of character work.
I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of getting to know your characters as though they’re old friends you’ve known for half your life. Sure, your reader may never need to know that Molly the Magnificent, girl sorcerer of Weston-super-mare, has three older cousins in Scotland that she’s hasn’t seen since she was six months old, or that she can’t abide the smell of lavender, or even that her middle name is Agatha after her mother’s best friend in primary school. But all of those things have made Molly the person she is at the start of your novel, and the person she is at the start of your novel will dictate how she reacts to the obstacles that the narrative throws in her way, and those reactions will shape the course of the story.
How to create characters your readers can't resist
I’ve been teaching creative writing for quite a few years now, and there are three questions that come up most often when I’m talking to a new class. They are, in no particular order of precedence, how to write convincing dialogue, how to know what point of view you should write in, and how to make sure your characters are well-rounded, recognisable, and relatable. They’re all good questions, and each of these elements are important considerations, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that there’s nothing more important than character when it comes to making your writing the best it can be. I’m fond of telling my students that good characters can often paper over cracks in your plot, but a great plot can’t hide half-baked characterisation. Your characters are the access point through which your reader will enter the world that you’re creating. It’s essential that they find that access point compelling, or else you’ve lost them.
But creating compelling characters does not need to be difficult. Different writers will have different processes, and, as ever, it’s important to find the approach that works for you. But the core idea is the same, no matter how you spin it out, and applying the following ideas in some form or another to your writing will help you grow your characters from a half-formed thought into someone whose story your reader has to discover.
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
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