Jumping in the Deep End With Your Characters

Fiction writers write stories, and the best stories are the ones that bring the reader into the characters’ lives. As writers, we want our characters to take on lives of their own, to seem real, to bring the reader along on the journey.

The best way to do that is to give our characters identifiable goals that move them from one end of the book to the other, propelling them forward until they reach their dream.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it isn’t quite that simple.

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Our hero doesn’t just need a goal – the “what” of what he wants. We need to dig a little deeper. For example, your hero wants to become a doctor. That’s a worthy goal. But what makes it an important goal, one that the readers care about, is that he wants to become a doctor because his younger brother died of a mysterious disease. He wants to identify the disease and find a cure for it. That’s his motivation, the thing that keeps him moving toward his goal.

What keeps the reader turning the page, though, is that there is something or someone in conflict with the hero, trying to keep him from attaining his goal. Perhaps it’s a lack of money that keeps him from going to school. Perhaps it’s another medical student who competes with him at every turn – cheating whenever he can. Perhaps your hero has the same disease that killed his brother, and he knows he has a limited time to find the cure. Or maybe it’s the hero’s daughter who has the disease…that ramps up the tension a bit, doesn’t it?

This concept is covered well in one of my favorite writing books, Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon. I try to read it at least once a year, and I learn a bit more about ImageGMC every time I read it.

But I recently found something else to use to bring my readers deeper into my characters’ lives. As we write, we often ask ourselves, “What would my hero do in this situation?” To go deeper, you need to know not only what your character would do, but what your character would never do.

Let’s look at our hero who wants to be the doctor. He’s smart, good-looking, dedicated, compassionate, honest. We know what he would do in most situations. We also know he would never murder anyone. How could he? He’s dedicated his life to helping people.

But think how the tension would crackle if you put your doctor-to-be in a situation where he has to make a choice between the life of a stranger and the life of his daughter. What would he do? Could he do the unthinkable?

Taking your readers through your hero’s thoughts and emotions as he wrestles with that decision brings them deeper into his character than anything else you can do. They sweat with him as he realizes he’s in a no-win situation. They feel the dread of making a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. And they celebrate with him when he comes upon the only solution – the perfect solution that preserves both lives.

So think about the hero or heroine in your work in progress. What is the one thing he or she would never do?

And what situation will guarantee they’ll have to contemplate taking that step?

Jan Drexler lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota with her husband of thirty years, their four adult children, two rowdy dogs, and Maggie, the cat who thinks she’s a dog. If she isn’t sitting at her computer living the lives of her characters, she’s probably hiking in the Hills or the Badlands, enjoying the spectacular scenery.

Jan’s debut novel, The Prodigal Son Returns, was published by Love Inspired in May 2013.

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5 thoughts on “Jumping in the Deep End With Your Characters

  1. Pingback: The weekly roundup – Part 1: On Writing and Editing | Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing

  2. Jan, your suggestions, especially for going deeper with our characters, are so helpful. I’m at that point in a WIP where I’m trying to discover what this character wouldn’t do. I agree that the GMC resource is a must for novelists. I refer to it frequently when stuck. Thank you for the post

  3. Great insight into how to get deeper into the character and motivations and goals. I need to key in on this fact in my WIP. Also the book, Goal, Motivation and Conflict, needs to be on my shelf so I can gleam more info from its content.

  4. Loved this post! Incorporating your suggestions with a current project, especially in regards to deternining what a character would and would not do. Thank you, Jan!

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