1. Giving life to the character.
Characters have to be treated as real for us to invest ourselves in them. Real thoughts, feelings, ability to perceive their environment through their senses, reactions. The more you can peer into the characters’ nooks and crannies and immerse yourself in their personal environment—feeling it yourself—the more you can write characters that make the reader care about them.
2. Giving life to the scene.
This is where things can affect your characters externally, but also through which they are allowed to move.
If I tell you: “She was in a hot parking lot,” you can make general assumptions about that environment but are left without much in the way of making the reader feel what the character is feeling.
Try this instead: “Her feet were hot, her socks wet. The sun had settled into the concrete and was working its way up inside her tennis shoes, making her want to rip them from her feet and throw them at the nearest parked car. Damn too many cars.”
Now this last one gives you more information pertaining not only to the person’s feelings, but also to her feelings relating to her environment. The environment itself gets fleshed out more. Not in such detail we lose ourselves in it, but just enough of a connection that it weighs on the mind of the person about whom we’re writing.
3. Giving life to the character’s past.
We all come from somewhere. Every freakin’ one of us. No exceptions. We have a unique growth from a perspective no one else has; not even identical twins share the same visual, auditory, or emotional perspectives and internalization of those experiences.
The characters you write about are the same…if they’re interesting, that is. Who wants to read about Jim the accountant who wears thick, dark-rimmed glasses, corduroys, has dandruff so bad he only wears white shirts and who goes to church and loves his mom and dad and never had a bad thought or interesting idea in his head?
But what if Jim the accountant keeps a sliver of bone in his pocket from a rabbit’s leg with which his brother used to poke him when he was four because bro thought it was fun and cruel in the way brothers are known to behave. “Good luck hurting,” his brother would always say. At least he tells people that. Just a reminder of his beloved brother is all. But what if the sliver of bone he keeps in his pocket actually comes from his brother?
Gets a little more interesting, doesn’t it?
Your characters have histories. Know them. Immerse yourself in them a while. It not only helps us see a richness, that otherwise probably wouldn’t be there, but it also helps your writing by knowing why characters may be driven to do something. Why they make the choices they do.
4. Having something happen that becomes gripping, or life-changing.
Life around us is filled with happenings. There’s very little that goes on that isn’t caught on film, read about on the internet, or told by a neighbor’s whispering voice.
The really cool thing about happenings is that two people could have exactly the same thing happen to them—say, a car splashing muddy water on them at a stoplight—and each react completely differently. One may think, “Oh crap,” and go on to brush hastily the water off his pants because he has a job interview in ten minutes. He remains calm and cool, because he is interviewing for a yoga instructor’s position.
The other may turn red and, in a rage, throw his umbrella at the offending car because it is the same make and model as that of his girlfriend who had cheated on him by sleeping with his best friend—and laughed about it.
Their paths to action are colored by their recent history and their immediate future.
With the length of a novel, we can delve further into their past and further into their future at our leisure. A novella or short story may not allow us to pursue such depth.
Number 4 is the one element that can engage us to want to read more, but if the other three items aren’t addressed in some way that’s meaningful to the story, then there’s a high probability that Number 4 isn’t going to do anything for us.
You could possibly get away without number 3: giving life to the character’s past. However, most of us move through this life, through decisions we make, by having a history of experiences that help refine our decision-making process. Our past can also be a great motivator for where we go in our future; frequently, our pasts are very engaging.
The Back-End Tease
Additionally, one of the main things that keeps us wanting to know more, quite simply, is not knowing enough, meaning: Don’t lay everything out right away for your readers.
In the art of seduction one wishes to tease through suggestion: physical, verbal, mental.
Mental suggestion is the back-end, hidden dialog of thought and imagination spurred by feelings and intent. These hidden qualities manifest themselves in very subtle or gross physical or verbal ways and then draw in other characters—and the reader—by teasing out emotion and spurring reaction.
The great thing about the written word is that we can go into various characters’ minds to know what they are thinking, where they wish to take things. We are privy to information we know will have some great effect on the other characters’ lives in the story. We are in on a secret, if even just a little.
This helps set up anticipation, even anxiety, for what comes next.
Because I wanted a specific writing angle with assignment, I asked one of my students to produce the following version for you, specifically poorly written. I didn’t tell her where my story was going to go, why Daniel was going to do something not necessarily humane with rat poison and such, but that I wanted her to feel free and take it how she liked. Do her worst, purposely.
You should easily be able to spot the differences between this story and the one that follows and how one alludes to what is to come, while the other blatantly comes out and lays things flat and exposed.
In the following version you may not feel a desire to read further. Everything is laid out there for you, and may feel that the rest of the story is just going to go through the motions from this point.
The Parking Lot - Student Version
Leaving the cool grocery store, Daniel walked as quickly as possible toward his car since it was so hot out. Typical Florida weather. He felt like he was smothering and very nauseated at the same time. He was even staggering a bit, almost hitting a parked truck with his cart. His mind was distracted on what he was planning to do once he reached his car and unloaded his special purchase.
Rat poison…but not for rats. He stared at the back of his three-year-old son’s head, whom he had left locked in the hot car while he went inside the store to purchase the poison. He stopped to throw up again before opening the driver’s door; his hands started shaking, knowing what he planned for them to do…and very soon. To the outside world, his son seemed like a pleasant and placid child. The boy’s mother worked two jobs and relied on Daniel to babysit every day since they could not afford day care and Daniel was out of work. He’d had enough of that. Placid to everyone else, but an evil brat to him. Wetting the bed, throwing food on the floor, crying and screaming “NO!” every time Daniel asked him to do something.
Daniel just couldn’t take it anymore. Increasing bits of rat poison at each meal wouldn’t change the taste that much and soon the boy would start having seizures. The last seizure, with a little help from his large, strong, powerful hand around the boy’s small neck, would take care of Daniel’s problem. He would dip a digital thermometer into boiling water up to 103 degrees, and everyone would think the boy had died from the flu. Then Daniel could spend his afternoons watching sports or napping to his heart’s content.
This is a more fleshed out version of my writing. In it, you can see a crafting of words that pertain to the character in the moment, his immersive experience, but also foretells of the impending future to help pull the reader along, to keep a thread of continuity and anticipation going.
The Parking Lot - Eric Mac's Version
Daniel pushed the cart ahead of him. It was heavier than he expected. The asphalt was hot, baking him from below and radiating heat under his sunglasses, sending a thin line of sweat down the side of his face. He was sweating, and he had only walked ten feet. Typical Florida August. He wanted to throw up.
As he walked, he found himself staring and had to correct his path so that he didn’t run into the tail end of an SUV, a truck, or, God-forbid, a Porsche. He didn’t have time for that. And he would leave a note if he scratched the thing. That was how he was. He did things the right way. The only way. No matter how it would inconvenience his day or life. He took responsibility for things he did.
For things he created.
The vomit was coming up his throat the more he walked, the closer he got to his car. To his son. I con’t do this, he thought. I can’t do this.
He stopped pushing the cart as those words came back to him in a flood of feeling, of fear, rippling outward from the center of his chest to the ends of his fingers, his toes. Those were the very words, the very plea, his mother had made when he was four and had scooped him up in her arms. The day they had left his father with tears and snot running down both their faces. The day his life had changed.
Daniel looked around the parking lot as he tried to get a hold of his thoughts. There was the distinct fear someone could hear him, had heard him, and knew what he was going to do.
Yes. Going to do.
He had no choice. There wasn’t any way around it anymore. He looked down at the cart and saw the edge of the yellow bag of rat poison he had purchased sitting so plainly, harmlessly amid the groceries. He looked ahead and saw his car, saw his son sitting patiently in the front seat with that blank expression on his face. The expression that hid his evil. The windows were rolled down, open. Open to the world.
Daniel choked as bile rushed to the back of his throat. He tried to swallow the acid down. His legs shook and he had to steady himself on the cart, the sweat under his fingers making him have to grip harder. He inhaled and then exhaled slowly so nothing but air would come out. He continued walking to his car. To the end of his life as he knew it.
Turn The Page
I recently met with one of my early readers. He was just giving me his report on the last novel I wrote and sent to him. This man will flat out tell me something is shit if he feels that way, and I am happy to tell you he had an excitement in his voice as he was talking to me. He related how fast it read, considering it was 450 pages, and that he didn’t want it to end, didn’t want to cease his involvement with the characters and their unusual lives.
He was happy to know there are a minimum of two more novels in that series I’ve yet to write.
What was also cool was that he kept trying to pry me for answers on what was going to happen in the characters’ lives. He was invested in knowing.
That was great to hear. And each of my first readers came back with the same intensity and strong desire for me to “finish the next novel already!”
That’s what you want when you write your stories. Immerse your readers in something deeply interesting with characters who are the same, where your readers not only care about them, but also want to know where the characters are going in their lives.
Take your time developing your own connection with your characters and their lives, their happenings, and it will be much easier for your readers to do the same. And it will make them want to turn page after page after page….