The secret to compelling characters: life outside the story

Britbear’s Book Reviews is pleased to welcome Laurel Garver, author of Almost There, with a guest post entitled “The secret to compelling characters: life outside the story.

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About Almost There

Genre: Young Adult Inspirational

Paris, the City of Lights. To seventeen-year-old Dani Deane, it’s the Promised Land. There, her widowed mother’s depression will vanish and she will no longer fear losing her only parent, her arty New York life, or her devoted boyfriend.

But shortly before their Paris getaway, Dani’s tyrannical grandfather falls ill, pulling them to rural Pennsylvania to deal with his hoarder horror of a house. Among the piles, Dani finds disturbing truths that could make Mum completely unravel. Desperate to protect her from pain and escape to Paris, Dani hatches a plan with the flirtatious neighbor boy that only threatens the relationships she most wants to save.

Why would God block all paths to Paris? Could real hope for healing be as close as a box tucked in the rafters?

Buy Almost There by Laurel Garver on AmazonBarnes and NobleSmashwords, and Apple iTunes.

 The secret to compelling characters: life outside the story

The most compelling characters seem to have a life outside the confines of a story on the page. They’re not like those animatronic beings on Disney World rides that are switched on and come to life only when there’s an audience to observe them.

Giving a character that life might entail developing backstory. But more importantly, it involves giving every character things to do, places to be, relationships, worries, plans and goals that engage them during the “here and now” of your story. Doing this not only makes them more real, but also can give them additional purpose, as plot catalysts. Making the cousin a real estate agent with keys to empty houses, for example, can prove useful to plot later.

Much of that present life may take place offstage (or “off page”). But it should leave traces–evidence apparent in the details you sprinkle in.

Those details might support what we already know about a character. A nice guy might show up late for a formal date with wheel grease on his knees. And we know he’s the type to stop and change someone’s tire, even if it’s inconvenient.

The details might play against type. She’s a tough girl from the ‘hood, but that strange indentation under her chin…well, it looks like the mark of hours of practising violin.

When details play enough against type, you can end up making a powerful social commentary. Think of J.K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge, the sadistic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her office is decorated with pink and lace and collector’s plates depicting frolicking kittens. It’s absolutely chilling, because Rowling has deftly shown you the heart of evil–one that perpetuates wrong in the quest for building a comfy utopia.

How you work in those details could take a volume to explore. But I’ll list some broad-strokes categories, followed by examples from my new novel, Almost There.

Physical traits

  • Peculiar hand calluses from rowing crew
  • Smelling of horse and leather
  • Celtic knotwork tattoos
  • Scar from a past injury
  • Unwashed hair and food-stained clothes

Actions

  • Mimicking guitar chord fingering when watching another musician perform
  • Calling someone by the wrong name
  • Cringing when a particular character raises his voice
  • Anxiously checking a phone for text messages
  • Sketching the waitress while waiting for food
  • Whistling songs you wouldn’t expect the person to know

Objects

  • A truck full of carpentry tools and an unfinished coffin
  • Pantone ink swatch book carried in a purse
  • Nietzsche t-shirt
  • Whole box of children’s safety scissors
  • Collection of war memorabilia

The best sort of details to include are ones that hint at a character’s skills, values, passions, commitments, and priorities. It’s a powerful way to make character traits dynamic–giving them legs so to speak. That, to me, makes a fictional being more than a cardboard cutout taking up space–it makes him have a life that means something.

What are some of your favorite characters who seem to have a life outside the novel? What resonates with you about these concepts of “life outside” and “life that means something”?

About the Author

Laurel 1Laurel Garver is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, professor’s wife and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and taking long walks in Philly’s Fairmount Park.

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