Oftentimes people come up with a wonderful story idea, plot it out intricately, and then get to writing. After awhile, though, they begin to realize that all of the characters sound the same.
An important step got skipped — character work.
Two prominent opinions abound in the writing community. The first opinion stipulates that the plot is the driving force of the story. If the plot is sound, everything else will fall into place. Plot and pacing will not be sacrificed in service of characters.
The other opinion is the complete opposite. Plot is irrelevant. If the character is rounded, well-developed, and real, a plot can’t help but occur. These stories meander along, but, assuredly, by the end of the book you know that character inside and out.
I fall somewhere in the middle. No matter what story I’m writing, even the very plot-driven ones, I firmly believe every major character should have a distinct persona and voice.
But what is voice? Voice is literally how the character sounds. What is their dialect, their speech pattern, their cadence? Are they humorous, monotone, sarcastic, succinct, verbose? Is their dialogue generally very relaxed, or are they typically agitated? Do they have a complex vocabulary or do they keep things short and sweet?
Unfortunately, these are things that you can’t really figure out on the fly, well, not without wasting a lot of time. It’s so much more efficient to spend a few weeks figuring out who your characters are. Delve deeply into their background. Even if you don’t actually use 95% of what you develop, they will feel, and therefore sound, so much more tangible to both you and the reader. For example, a character who grew up poor in LA is going to talk and sound very differently from a character who grew up isolated from society in rural Maine. They will have completely unique life experiences, and, if thrust together, will not act and talk similarly when their true selves appear.
I’ve written characters that were underdeveloped and I struggled with them from start to finish. If you don’t know your character, then you don’t have a solid understanding of how they will react in different situations. Readers are typically an intellectual group. They will sniff out a shortcut in a heartbeat.
I know it’s hard to slow down. I know you want to write that book now. But trust me when I tell you that by thoroughly exploring your characters and giving them the time that they deserve, you will write a better book.
By the time you’re done, your characters will feel like permanent members of your reality.
(Did you enjoy this article? Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)