by author Lauren Oliver
Giving characters dimensionality:
One of the most important things you should define for your characters is what they want and what they need. Keep in mind that in literature—as in life—the things people believe will make them happy, as opposed to the things that will actually make them happy, are often distinct, if not incompatible. So a character might want to date the quarterback, when what she/he needs is to find true love; or, a girl might want to communicate with her dead mother, when what she needs is to finally come to terms with her mother’s death. Defining what your characters want and need from the start will make sure they have dimensionality—and it will also make sure they have goals, which is a major basis of narrative drive. Over the course of the novel, your job as a writer is to bring your characters’ wants and needs into alignment: in other words, they have to learn to want what they need. This ensures that your character will grow and change; nobody is interested in characters (or people!) that remain static.
Making characters feel real:
Have you ever noticed that when you don’t really know people very well, you’ll often define them based on superficial characteristics/traits? For example, you’ll see a stranger and notice that she has blond hair and a really small nose. Those are descriptions of superficial traits, and certainly have their place in books. However, really good description tells the reader not just what a character looks like, but what a character is like—in other words, it indicates to the reader the moral/emotional characteristics of its characters. So, for example: “The girl had blond hair and a really small nose, which she was constantly wrinkling as though permanently disapproving of a foul smell that no one else could detect.” This tells us what she looks like but also what she is like—disapproving, kind of snobby. A boy who constantly bites his nails is different from a girl who constantly flips her hair; a boy with a habit of messing with his cowlick is different from a boy who eats boogers when he thinks no one is watching. You don’t need to say very much about a character to give the reader very important clues about how he or she behaves in the world, whether she/he is shy or angry or confident or mean, and whether we, as readers, like him or her.
When it comes to your significant or main characters, it’s important that you, as the writer, know them very well. What does that mean? Well, think about how you know your best friend versus, say, the annoying neighbor down the street who you see every year at your mom’s Christmas party. You probably know a ton of things about your best friend, from big things to random, silly, “trivial” things: that she’s terrified of spiders but wants to go sky-diving as soon as she turns 18; that she slept with the teddy bear her dad gave her for two years after her parents got divorced, even though she refused to visit him; that her favorite flavor of ice cream is Moose Tracks and that she despises the taste of raw onions; that she thinks she has too many freckles, etc. On the other hand, you probably only know very basic things about your annoying neighbor—that she is applying to Brown University, for example, and also seems always to wear purple sweaters around the holidays.
What makes people people—as opposed to, say, animatronic robots—is that they are complex and often contradictory; they are an enormous shifting system of different needs, likes, urges, impulses, and preferences. When it comes to creating or evoking your major characters, you need to know their ins and outs, the twisty and tunnel-y places inside of them, just as you do for your best friends. And don’t be afraid to poach from real life! I totally use real-life details about my friends in my books.
Lauren Oliver graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago and subsequently received her MFA degree in fiction at New York University. Her first book, Before I Fall, a New York Times Bestseller, was published by HarperTeen in March 2010 and will be translated into twenty-eight languages. Her second book, Delirium, also a New York Times bestseller, was published in February 2011 and has recently been optioned for film. She has also worked as a freelance editor on projects ranging from best-selling nonfiction etiquette guides to commercial teen novels. She loves to read, run in Prospect Park, buy shoes, and work with fabulous new authors on unstoppable book ideas. She is not, however, necessarily a fan of long walks on the beach.
DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver: Ninety-five days, and then I’ll be safe. I wonder whether the procedure will hurt. I want to get it over with. It’s hard to be patient. It’s hard not to be afraid while I’m still uncured, though so far the deliria hasn’t touched me yet. Still, I worry. They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness. The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.
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