Writing memorable characters? It’s all about their feelings.
August 24, 2016
NOVELS ARE like life.
Characters reside within them.
A few ugly.
Writers don’t tell the story. Characters do.
As readers, we like them.
We hate them.
We fear them.
But a good story would be lost with them.
What makes a character unforgettable?
It’s not that he’s tough.
It’s not that she’s beautiful.
We are attached to characters when we know what they are feeling at a single moment of time when their individual story hangs in the balance.
I never work on plots. The plots always show up.
I do, however, care a great deal about what my character is feeling.
In the historical novel I’m writing, Last Dance of the Doodlebug Man, I write about Eudora Durant, the love interest, who is desperately trying to come to grips with a terrible marriage going from bad to worse. She wonders what might have been.
She was plowing in the field when I wrote:
“Eudora Durant knew there must be a hundred or more good ways of dying, some better than others, some worse, and she wondered why she had insisted on taking the slowest path possible to the grave. She couldn’t blame anyone for her lot in life. All she had to do was look in the cracked mirror beside her bed from time to time, and she knew where the blame fell, and it landed squarely on her shoulders.”
In my new novel that will be released on August 29, Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever, high school quarterback Casey Clinton looks back on his life of a football hero. The last game has been played. The lights are dim. The glory days have passed him, and he believes has no hopes for the future.
“On Friday nights, Casey Clinton had always felt good. There had been football and tradition, cheerleaders screaming his name, the band playing Tuxedo Junction, someone to walk him off the field when he won, and someone to make him forget when he didn’t. Dances and girls. Mums and roses. Cokes and bootleg whiskey in the trunk of somebody’s car. Cheeseburgers down at the Bulldog Grill. Love songs on a jukebox. Fogged windows in the front seat of his car, parked back beneath the pines where he would never be parked with Chelsea Sinclair again. He guessed her name would be Chelsea Calhoun now. It sounded country.
“Those were good times.
“Those were the best of times.
“He wanted to live them all over again just one more time. It was too late.”
Ambrose Lincoln is an American operative during World War II whose mind has been erased by government experiments. The doctors have taken his memory away.
He was waiting to be interviewed by a government psychiatrist in Secrets of the Dead when I wrote:
“Lincoln did not have to look around to know he was alone. He would remain that way for four minutes and twelve seconds. It was a game that psychologists liked to play. Treat him like a rat in a dark maze. Test his patience. Then pounce like a jungle cat out of the darkness. Catch him off guard and count the threads in his frazzled nerves.
“Leave him alone. Let him stew for a few minutes. See if fits of anxiety would untangle those frazzled nerves and leave the raw ends exposed.
“Lincoln smiled. It was, he had decided a long time ago, a game that fools played. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift away. He had no idea where it went, but it was somewhere on the far side of worry and pain. Ambrose Lincoln spent a lot of time in a place as black as night when the world was devoid of stars, and the moon lay behind a thunderhead that kept the storms away. It was a place of death, and he wondered why so many feared it, and he could not figure out why he fought so hard to keep from tumbling into a black hole that felt as cool as the stones of a tomb and smelled like the freshly-turned earth of a new grave.”
Little Lies, which will be re-released later this year, focuses on a charismatic preacher, Nathan Locke, whose thirst for power triggers a split in the Church. It is a chilling, fearful tale of a small town that has smoldered too long in the fires of jealousy and selfish greed, then is finally blown apart by lies, gossip and violent death.
The preacher was preparing to deliver the eulogy at a funeral, I wrote:
“Nathan Locke’s dark eyes scanned the scriptures he had prepared to comfort those who had come to be comforted and entertain those who had come for the show. A preacher’s reputation depended on how well he could send some wretched soul on to its eternal reward.
“The rich old reprobates in Mississippi didn’t care what anybody said about them as long as they were alive. They treated business as a good game of poker, and they based their life on one basic homespun commandment: a man wasn’t guilty unless he got caught, and those with enough money never got caught, much less convicted.
“Idle talk, no matter how malicious, never bothered them. But when the time came to lay it all down and give up the ghost, they wanted those final words spoken over them to be strong powerful and unforgettable. It was their last shot to have something akin to immortality etched in stone. Truth was not a prerequisite. Never had been. Never would be. The preacher was their defense attorney on judgment day, and heaven or hell awaited his final summation to a jury of angels or demons.
“Nathan Locke smiled to himself. At the moment he had everything he needed.
“A rich and respected corpse.
“An overflowing crowd.
“A cooperative widow who knew how to sob loud enough and often enough to be heard on the back row.
“And a sermon that would knock them dead.”
Readers always want to know how a character looks.
They want to know how a character is dressed.
But what do they really want to know? What is the character thinking and how does he or she feels about the dilemma rising up to confront a desperate life?
Finding out makes characters real.
Finding out makes the character someone readers will remember for a long time.