Delilah is taking the blog for a spin today, in honor of last week’s release of HIT (if you haven’t read it…you should–it kept me awake far past my bedtime in order to finish it faster).
And so, with no further ado, here’s Delilah:
4 Ways to Make Us Fall in Love with a Character: Magellan Edition
First, a confession: Facebook, like ice cream, pains me. I want to love it. And I do—for a minute. And then it takes swift revenge on my heart and gut, and soon I’m politely horking in a corner. But my very favorite thing on Facebook is Susan’s aquarium. I love the photos of the seahorses, the fish, Oscar the Abalone, and the hilarious shrimp. I love learning new things about saltwater reefs. I love the glorious, beautiful images that act as works of art, breaking up the rants and rages and brunch photos on my wall.
But most of all, I love the characters.
Because Susan’s seahorses have become just as real to me as the humans of Facebook.
Don’t we all wish that the characters in our books could be that real?
They can. Here’s how.
1. Give us an underdog, like Magellan.
From the beginning, we were told not to get too attached to the snickless little seahorse, and yet something in his open curiosity and drive to survive drew us in. We love watching someone flourish despite the odds. We love to see strangeness blossom into a unique character like no other. So don’t make your protagonist into Superman — give us Jimmy Olson. Give us someone with big dreams, a warm smile, and nothing else. Give us a character who’s scarred and broken but still stops to help kittens in a dumpster. Don’t give your protagonist everything because your reader has never had everything and therefore can’t relate. We’ll root for every ort if your character has to fight for it. A tragic backstory, given to us in nibbles, can make the character relatable as she fights for what she wants.
2. Give us an intricate and compelling world that challenges your characters.
Susan’s beautiful reef of corals and fans is the backdrop to every image we see, almost a character itself. Why should worldbuilding factor into character? Because your character is shaped by your world. Even if your story is set in our regular world, the small corner that you choose as the setting for your story will have quirks, unique beauty, strangeness, and difficulties. Your world should get in your character’s way, challenging them and helping them grow. Even the most boring restaurant can be interesting if you compel us with carefully chosen details, wacky or lovable side characters, and a visual that remains with us long after the book is done. Just look at how much we love Hobbit houses or how much the languishing white plantation house lends character to Southern Gothic. Use your backdrop to show who your character is and how they see the world just as Magellan’s exploration of the reef shows us what a fascinating and likeable little dude he is.
3. Give us a cast of characters to love—and hate.
Okay, fine. So I don’t hate any of the creatures in Susan’s reef, but there is a grouchy fish. If there was nothing in that tank but one seahorse, we’d get pretty bored. Instead, we have a living society of creatures—some shy, some bold, some colorful, some plain, some curious and some curmudgeonly. From the shy clownfish to the weird pipefish to our main players, the seahorses, each character interacts with the main character in a way that reveals who he is and how he fits with society and sometimes pulls away from it. Most books have a protagonist, a love interest, a villain, and a band of Merry Men or Steel Magnolias. Make each of those secondary and tertiary characters just as real as your main character, and we’ll see your story as genuine, real, and reflective of life.
4. Give us danger.
If nothing ever happens, you don’t have a book. We need stakes, tension, conflict—not just one character, constantly hashing over memories. I still remember when Ceti died and Ghillie mourned her. I remember when Susan accidentally put the algae cleaner on the wrong side of the tank. I remember when we thought two of the babies were going to be dead by morning. And now, as we all wait to see if Rigel is pregnant, I feel the tension!
Character is revealed through plot, and that means that we’ll learn more about your protagonist by showing how she reacts to a car accident than we will by listening to her sitting in bed, thinking about that time she was in a car accident. Showing your character in the middle of action reveals not how they see themselves but how they actually are. So get out of that bed and out the door! Or, you know, out of the anemone and into the open water.
Here’s to hoping the reef of your writing will birth many brilliant Magellans!
Her next book is Wake of Vultures, written as Lila Bowen and out this October with Orbit Books. She also blogs about writing at www.whimsydark.com and, thanks to Susan’s inspiration, hopes to have a saltwater aquarium one day. Until then, the horse will have to do.