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Characters Need A Reason

Characters Need A Reason...


Not just a reason for what they do, but a reason for why a character exists in your book in the first place.

When an actor begins preparing for a part in a movie, it's not just the lines that get memorized. Actors will often go to the extremes to understand who that character is so they can portray them with depth. That's what we, the authors, need to learn otherwise the story falls flat because the characters are flat.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that all our characters need dimension. Dimension means there's good and bad in everyone. A hero can't be all good and a villain can't be all bad. No one is that extreme.

Our characters need to create sympathy or likability in the reader. We need to show who they are on the inside through actions on the outside.

Characters need a reason to move through the pages of the book as much as they need a reason for who they are in the book, how they affect the plot and the other characters around them.

Without this symbiotic relationship, characters to one another and characters to the plot, the story feels disjointed and empty.
Sometimes the reason is found in the backstory. Hence the tendency for actors to immerse themselves in a roll prior to filming. Some have gone so far as to check into a mental hospital, live on the streets, or hire someone to coach them.

For writers, immersing in the character might mean intense research or something as simple as people-watching. But it's crucial to understand why a person is the way he/she is before trying to write actions on the page that don't fit that character. Depth of character means a writer understands how that person would speak, feel, act, display behavior "on the screen" in the pages of the book.

Do a simple exercise: What's your favorite color? Why?
What's your most hated color? Why?

Let me explain how something as simple as color can motivate or create feelings of hate. In my non-fiction book, Gems of Wisdom: The Treasure of Experience, I relate a story of why I hate the color orange. When I was a young girl, my mentally ill and very controlling single mother loved orange. Our whole house was orange from the shag carpeting to the kitchen decor. I, on the other hand, loved the color lemon yellow. I decorated my room for my 15th birthday in lemon yellow and white. I loved it. I felt happy and individual. It was my sanctuary away from the stress of my situation. But a few weeks later, I went to visit my dad, and came home to my lovely new birthday room having been changed. My new white mirror and wall set had been spray painted bright orange. My mother had convinced her friends to help her by telling them it was my favorite color too. I felt invaded. I felt like my identity had been overwritten. To this day, I hate the color orange. And the color lemon yellow? It still stands for happiness and freedom to be myself. I don't think these feelings would be nearly as extreme if that incident hadn't happened. One event can change everything. By the way, there is no orange in my house...

Colors are not nefarious. Experiences create intense feelings that stick with us. That small story can explain a lot of my personal motivation. What small incident can you describe that will help explain your characters' behavior and give them a reason to be on the pages of your story?

Angela Breidenbach is the host of Lit Up Talk Radio and a best-selling author of historical and contemporary romance. She's written Gems of Wisdom: The Treasure of Experience to help others use their experiences to create a bright future.

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