After writing a short story and handing it over to my seventh grade Literature teacher for grading, she returned it with one sentence of advice written over the black text in big cursive red ink:
Make your reader like your characters before killing them!
This piece of advice stuck with me through all my fifteen-plus years of writing fiction. In other words, I needed to make my readers care about my characters enough to worry about their wellbeing.
That’s the stuff of fiction, isn’t it?
If readers don’t like your characters, can’t relate to or empathize with them, or refuse to find justification in their motives, traits, or behaviors, the reader wouldn’t care what happens to them.
And the common denominator in great fiction is great characters. Yes, even the unlikable antagonist can be a great character. The trick is to make your main characters three-dimensional, believable, and have a plausible motive.
- Three-dimensional: Develop their background, a list of fears, wishes, flaws, and successes. Determine why they are the way they are by asking what special event in their life influenced them.
- Believable: Build their character and have them stay true to it. When changes occur to their character, which they should over time, those changes should make sense and be influenced by the complications they encounter throughout the story.
- Plausible motive: Give them a good reason for doing what they do, even if what they do is bad. Even the bad guy has “good” intentions.
If the reader does not care about your characters, they will not continue the story. If you lose your reader’s interest, you run the risk of losing that reader for good.
I admit, it’s hard to remember almost anything from my seventh grade Math class, but my Literature teacher’s valuable advice about good storytelling will forever stay with me.
What’s the most important piece of writing advice you received as a fiction writer? Tell me in the comments.
[Image credit: Dinuraj K]