A story clicks if the reader hatches on to the protag’s emotional ride and experiences what s/he goes through. The question is how to do this. One sure shot way is to mould the protag’s character with such depth that the reader feels it in his bones. Here are a few tips to do just that.
Make it Personal
The movie Titanic is not a story about the unsinkable ship that went down, taking with it thousands of its passengers. It is not a story about man’s miscalculations and nature bringing him to his knees. It is essentially a story about Jack and Rose, of their emotions, of their love for each other, triumphing even death. The more the story is about the character, the more it is relatable. This does not mean a story cannot be plot-driven. But the character should not be static while the plot moves. The plot should change the characters, make them confront their fears, and thus grow along with the plot.
Make a Journey
Make your character travel, not just physically, but emotionally. Move them towards their goal or away from it, whichever suits the plot. A character can be lovable, despicable, naïve, or wise. However, if s/he is stagnant, the reader will find it hard to invest in them. Plot-wise speaking, there has to be a conflict that will push the protag to make an internal journey. In the above story, Rose risking her financial stability, her mother’s judgment, her fiancée’s wrath, all of it, for Jack. The conflict here is falling in love with Jack, a socially unacceptable suitor. But it is Rose’s transformation from being a pawn to a fighter that keeps the reader invested in her until her death.
Make them Authentic
Authentic characters are relatable. Backstories yield this authenticity to the characters. We know Jack takes big risks (established in the first scene where he plays poker to win a ticket to travel in Titanic). We know Jack is a hopeless romantic (He is an artist!). We know he is an idealist (He believes in following the heart). So, when he falls for Rose, it is believable and thus, relatable. The more the backstory, the more authentic the character appears.
PS – A word of caution. Giving a back story does not mean information dumping or a deviating subplot. Incorporate only those snippets which affect the plot. In Titanic, it is enough to know that Rose’s father left her in debt. And that is why she is marrying Cal. What led to the debts? Was it her father’s greed or his naïve optimism? How much were her parents in love with each other? All this is not only unnecessary but also leads to scattered focus.
To sum it up, the backstory should accentuate the character, not dilute the plot.
There is much, much more to characterization. And I hope to have an educative discussion regarding this in the comment section. Please feel free to enlighten me, refute, or put forth new perspectives. It will be well appreciated by all the writers, who want to better themselves.
Sarves (Sarveswari Saikrishna) writes because her brain won’t stop bullying her until she writes, whether she likes it or not. She tries her hand in all genres, one of her favorite being psychological horror. To her surprise, her stories have found their way into several anthologies published by Artoonsinn and Hive and literary magazines (TMYS, December 2020 issue). She has a few articles published in The Hindu to her credit.
She lives in Chennai and waits for the day when people would pay her to read her stories.