When crime writer Sue Coletta agreed to write me a guest post I felt truly honoured. She’s a fantastic writer who has tons of literary experience and is an awesome blogger.
Check out her powerful and explosive guest post!
How To Breathe Life Into Our Characters
Anyone who’s ever submitted to a literary agent has eventually heard this line, “I really enjoyed your story, however, I couldn’t connect with your characters as much as I would have liked.”
I’ve read numerous blogs that promote creating a likable main character, or an inherently evil antagonist. That’s not entirely true. Let’s take Hannibal Lector, for instance. I don’t know about you but I could read/watch him all day. Why? Because he wasn’t all bad or all good, even if he did crave human flesh. I could empathize with his feelings for Clarise. In his own sick way he really cared for her, even helped to stop the screaming lambs in her head by uncovering to the root of the problem.
That’s the key word…empathy.
In order for our readers to connect with our characters we need to give them fears and flaws, desires and aspirations. When we round off our characters with these traits, to name a few, readers can relate to them better.
Charlie cheated on his wife Claire every chance he got. Most women would instantly dislike him, might even want to see him die a horrible death, or have the pleasure of reading about a woman going all Bobbitt on his ass.
And then we realize Claire is in a vegetative state, and our views change. Charlie kept her home because he coudn’t bear the thought of living without her. He doted on her, scrounged up enough money for a visiting nurse to come in during the day, which he barely afforded. At night he cared for Claire’s every need—brushed her hair, bathed her, dressed her in her favorite nightgown so she could feel pretty. After a ten-hour shift, this man bust his hump to ensure his wife was comfortable.
Now, we understand. Sometimes he needed to feel loved, too. We empathize with his situation, even admire all he does. Perhaps we secretly wish someone would love us enough to go to these lengths, should we find ourselves in a similar situation.
We got a peek at Charlie’s true character–his unconditional love for his wife. As such, we root for him when trouble strikes. And that, is what you need to find within your character. Because readers want a vicarious experience, to feel the character’s emotions, experience what they see, touch, hear, taste—we want to live inside their skin.
You might say, “That’s all well and good, Sue, but how do we do that?”
First, you need to know your character inside-out. Delve deep into his/her psyche, know the backstory, childhood, likes and dislikes, worldviews, religion, employment, past and present, living situation, even his/her birthday and astrological sign helps in crafting a well-rounded character.
Give your character a mannerism grounded in past experience.
Sarah grew up on a farm. As a ten-year-old, her favorite pastime was playing with animals. She’d hold apples for the horses, fill the trough in the pig’s den. Her smiling eyes watched in awe during the birth of a new calf or piglet, her heart overflowing with joy.
One hot July morning, a tangerine sun blazing on her petite shoulders, a piglet no more than five weeks old nuckled on his Mommy’s teet, his curly tail swooshing with contentment. Dan, Sarah’s father, stormed out the house. The door slammed shut, and Sarah spun.
Her gaze narrowed on the shotgun in his hand. “No, Daddy. They’re my friends.”
“I told you not to get attached.”
Dan squared his shoulders, legs slightly apart, and aimed down the shotgun’s barrel at the sow.
“No!” Sarah’s heart jackhammered in her chest. She fell to her knees, praying hands held high. “Daddy, pleeease.”
“Stupid girl,” he said, snide and harsh. “Someday you’ll learn.”
Burying her face in cupped hands, her back heaved, begging for her father’s absolution, wishing he’d stop and leave her precious animals alone. She sobbed. The situation was hopeless. Determination crossed Dan’s face, and Sarah closed her eyes.
A gunshot rang out.
The shot vibrated through her tiny frame. Her eyes flashed open, and she watched in horror as the sow’s skull exploded. Brain matter flew in chaos. The sow toppled over, pinning her piglet. The smell of gunpowder lingered in the air.
Sarah’s gaze zeroed on a tiny hoof under the sow’s belly. It did not move. The young girl recited a silent prayer. Please, God, let my piglet live. I’ll do anything.
Five minutes felt like an eternity. No wind. No sound. Except for a low, steady hum that ricocheted from ear to ear. The hoof flinched, and her heart leaped. The piglet wiggled out. A split-second later a bloodcurdling wail carried in the wind. The piglet keened, his high-pitch slicing Sarah in half.
“Hah!” Dan boasted about his marksmanship, muttered something under his breath, and then smirked a cat’s grin—proud of his achievement. A sickening feeling churned Sarah’s stomach.
Hoisting the sow over his shoulder, Dan stopped dead in front of his daughter. Glared at Sarah frozen on bent knees. “She’ll be good eatin’, I reckon.” A wad of chew flew from the farmer’s mouth, landed inches from her feet.
Hand trembling, the little girl wiped blood off her cheek as she stared at the piglet, drenched in his mother’s blood.
Twenty years later. Sarah had a family of her own, her father long dead, but the memory of that July morn still very much alive in her subconscious.
At the first sign of trouble Sarah wipes that same cheek. It’s an unconscious mannerism. Her mind registers fear, or anxiety, the same way it did in her youth. Which makes her real, human.
We all have our quirks, and most times they relate to our childhood, or traumatic events. Empathy, a vicarious experience, and mannerisms, make characters come alive on the page.
What do you focus on when crafting your characters? Have you used mannerisms? Tell me about it in the comments.
Bio: A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime, Sue Coletta is a crime fiction author. Her latest novel, Marred, a psychological thriller, is slated for release on November 11, 2015, Tirgearr Publishing. Searching for a way to commit fictional murder? Sign-up for her FREE 13-page .pdf 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters, or go here for a taste of what you’ll find inside.