Margaret Atwood’s Simple Rule For Crafting More Compelling Characters in Your Stories

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A character that leaves no impression on the reader will lead your work down the path of irrelevance.

That’s why most remarkable works of fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction revolve around a character on a mission. Something about these characters moves the readers. It could be their flaws, their challenges, their desires, or their successes.

With little skill and lots of thoughtfulness,you can also craft the perfect character capable of capturing your readers’ attention and taking them on an emotional journey to Timbuktu. To complement your perfect effort, here’s what novelist Margaret Artwood suggests to get your character spot on.

Unless you’re writing about yourself or someone you intimately know, Margaret Artwood said to pass your character’s story beneath the eyes of an expert. The expert here is a breathing soul after whom you’ve modeled your character.

Sometimes, a glimmer of light that streams from an expert’s eyes will outshine every watt of spotlight you’ve shone on your character. Someone who’s lived the life you’re imagining can tell a more accurate story.

If you can find one, run it by them. Badger them, buy them a pizza the size of a truck’s tire if you have to. No, you’re not bribing them. You’re only asking a favor.

Prolific author John Grisham does the same thing in some of his classic thrillers. “As usual, I leaned on others for advice and expertise. I found lawyers with expertise, and I befriended them. I called them at all hours and picked their brains,” he wrote in one of his books.

Do you know what an amateur stand-up thinks before he tilts the mic stand and starts his show, for example? What does his shot at redemption sound like if even his own friends don’t find his jokes funny?

You can let your imagination run as wild as it can, but if you were writing about a struggling stand-up, running it by a real-life comedian will part the partition to his brain and show you how things tick up there. In short, an expert will help you craft the most compelling character for your story.

You can learn 90,000 words of a new language and not quite master the lingo like a native speaker. The same rule holds true in writing about some characters.

You can study their every move and learn all about them and yet not know some common jargon. It takes a real-life character to name some phrases and reveal some terms.

A colleague writer once ran a dialogue between a landlord and a tenant by me because of my background in real estate management. While he got everything right, I made two minor adjustments. First, I changed “I have another place available for rent,” to “I have another space to let.” I also corrected “I’ll charge $500 per month” to “It goes for $500 a month.”

You could say I was sweating the small stuff, but often those tiny details make a monumental difference. When you get an expect to proofread your character’s story, they’ll spot the missing jargon and hopefully spruce things up for you.

Some tricky mannerisms may slip through your fingers

“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!” Anton Chekhov.

Like the jargon, some mannerisms are insider information. You’ll need a trusted mole in those ranks to spill the beans. You job is to find one with an uncharacteristic loose tongue to nail some of these quirks of your character.

For example, how does a chain smoker hold a cigarette to their lips? Do they stick it between their index and middle fingers, or it’s a thumb and index finger combo? What expression do they wear on their faces as the smoke billows through their nostrils? How do they dispose of the butt? Does an amateur do it the same way?

Sometimes, nailing these tiny details is what propels your characters — and your work — into top-tier status. But it takes an expert to find the perfect size and know the exact spot to stick the nail before the hammer comes down hard. Trust the eyes of an expert to reveal the hidden mannerisms.

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Most readers can spot it when a writer doesn’t quite get his character right. It stands out like a fake mustache. That may come from pulling out characters only from the imagination. You could argue that’s the power of creativity.

But the best move is to run it by an expert. That extra set of eyes may be just what you need to help you craft compelling characters that leave an indelible impression on your readers.

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