Some of you may remember the old Cracker Jack boxes that contained a prize. The prize was a cheap plastic ring or toy of some sort, but that didn’t matter. Getting to the prize made you spill half the box just to find it. Imagine the disappointment if there hadn’t been a prize?
Most fiction readers lose interest when characters are unbelievable within their own contexts. The anticipated prize is not worth digging into your book. It doesn’t matter what genre you write, the reader’s brain applies critical analysis to what its reading. This happens consciously and unconsciously. We do the same thing when we look at digitally manipulated photos. Our brains pick up on things that prove it is a fake. For example, a shadow falling in the wrong direction based on the position of the light source. You may not be able to pinpoint why it appears fake; you just know there is something not right in the photo.
When applied to fiction, a reader’s inner critic may say “She would never say that,” or, “That’s not what someone in that situation would do.” The next thing you know, your book is in the trash pile, or maybe they think they’ll finish it later, but they never do.
As an aid to my own writing, I came up with five C’s for better character development. They keep me honest because I am forced to answer critical questions about my characters.
- Core – Who is this character at his/her core? Sounds like a simple enough question, but it requires a bit of thought. What events shaped the character in his/her past? These past events may be incorporated as backstory, or in the form of dialogue – or perhaps you will reveal them later. If it’s a complicated character, it may be wise to pace their development. If you stretch the character’s development too far, too soon, without giving the reader some insight as to why the character is the way he/she is, it can easily trigger your reader’s inner critic to reject it. Part of the fun in reading a great story is getting to know the characters as events unfold. This process of discovery makes for savory reading.
- Context – Based on the character’s core, is the context in which we find him/her in the story a believable one? How a character acts in a situation will either reinforce the reader’s relationship or give pause as they begin to question whether reading your book will be more interesting than watching paint dry. Characters may do the unexpected, providing great twists and juicy surprises, but readers’ brains will listen to their inner critics along the way, determining if it accepts the behavior as real.
- Credibility – The nuances with which your character comes to life are foundational bits that build believability. Elements such as speech, habits, gestures, and idiosyncrasies (like putting ketchup on their Cracker Jack) help readers buy into a character.
- Consistency – Presenting a character’s traits is not enough; they need to be demonstrated, not simply narrated. These traits also need to be applied with consistency, or else the writing may come across as confusing and not believable. A consistent character voice helps build expectations around that persona. It can help readers fall in love with the characters or justify hating them. Make your characters real the for the reader.
- Contradiction – There are times when you might employ contradictions in your character’s behavior. As you wrote those contradictions, think about your reader’s inner critic and make sure contradictions are intentional, not simply lazy writing. Follow through with good dialogue. Don’t leave the reader hanging with poorly matched emotions or consequences that the reader expects should have a major impact on the character.
I hope my five C’s prove useful as you write your next great work. Readers may have different levels of inner critics, but the inner critic is there. Meeting their criteria for believability is not a compromise, it helps them justify their belief in the character, making your story much harder to put down. Like a loaded Cracker Jack box with multiple prizes buried in your character-rich story, readers will be compelled to dig deeper, confident they will be rewarded with juicy reading gems. Yum!
Diogenes Ruiz is a fiction writer whose stories are compelling and thought-provoking. He merges suspense, mystery, and fantasy creating interesting characters in situations that stretch your imagination. His use of humor, combined with the tempo and pace of his writing, create highly effective page turners.
His debut novel, A Rabbit’s Tale An Easter Story (PG-13), received the 2015 Global eBook Gold Medal Award for Christian fiction and recently received the 2016 Reader’s Favorite Bronze Medal in the category of Tall Tales. His second book, Persistent Evil, is an action-packed horror novel featuring a priest who keeps getting kicked out of the churches where he is assigned. If he speaks of what he sees, people will die.