That is the gist of what novelist Sharon Biggs Waller told Culver Academies students during her sessions on April 27. Waller released her first fictional work last year, A Mad, Wicked Folly. She has also written several articles and non-fictional pieces – including for the Culver Alumni Magazine.
She was visiting campus to participate in the Writing Center’s “Academies Awards” recognition of student writers. Her visit was underwritten by the Montgomery Lecture Series. She is married to Horsemanship Director of Instruction Mark Waller.
“Compelling characters create incredible stories,” Waller said. While plot is important, it is the characters and their backgrounds “that keep people reading.”
But learning to breathe life into your characters takes time, Waller said. Criticisms of her earlier works were that her characters were “too flat, too one note.” She spent a year learning how to create characters that stayed with people. One technique she used was actually walking in their shoes.
While living in London, Waller was developing her main character for A Mad, Wicked Folly, a young adult novel about a teenaged suffragette in London during the early 1900s. Waller would walk the streets where Dora Thewlis, who inspired her story, walked to help give her a feel for the character.
Backstories help create complete characters. Anti-heroes like Donald Draper on Mad Men and Walter White on Breaking Bad become memorable because of their backstories. It is what saves them from becoming totally unlikeable, she said
Author James Scott Bell said that characters require “Grit, Wit, and It” to be memorable, Waller said. Examples are Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Grit (the strength to keep going). Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird has Wit (the ability to bring lightness and humor to a situation). Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby has It (the X factor – something special that sets the character apart). Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an example of a character who has the combination of Wit and It.
Waller had a list of “Know Thy Character” traits authors should consider. For a lovelorn hero, everything from his name to how he fits into the story’s goal, flaws/faults, strengths, loves, hates, fears, and secrets should be developed. Also, what obstacles stand in his way and what does he stand to lose if he is not successful should be detailed. When a book isn’t working it usually is because the readers cannot break the characters down, she explained.
There are also some basic problems to watch for. New writers especially will do “an information dump” when giving out details of a character. “Let the story unfold,” she said. There are characters, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye that are considered unreliable narrators. What they are saying is the truth isn’t necessarily so. This technique helps keep characters mysterious, she said.
Let the story unfold,” she said. There are characters, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye that are considered unreliable narrators. What they are saying is the truth isn’t necessarily so. This technique helps keep characters mysterious
And antagonists, who assist in the main character’s growth, doesn’t necessarily have to be an enemy or evil person. It can be as simple as a friend who disagrees with the main character on that one action or philosophy.
And never let your character say their major flaw is “l love too much,” Waller warned. “That just makes me want to slap them.”