Recently I read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, and was completely weirded out, freaked out, and grossed out 99% of the time.
As a reader, I would call that a success. As a writer, I would call that some dang good characterization.
If you’ve never read Gillian Flynn, I would suggest either Dark Places or Sharp Objects first. I wasn’t crazy about Gone Girl, but her first two books are phenomenal. Flynn has really nailed developing the quirky, yet likable, main character. They always have scars, emotional or physical, and they are really good at being themselves. That is to say, really good at being weird.
There are too many books with flat characters. Even when some authors try to give their characters dimension, they still fall short. So she’s a cheerleader with a drinking problem. So what? Give me more than that. Give your readers more than that.
In Dark Places, our sort-of heroine, Libby Day, is struggling with the murders of her family. When she was seven, she put her older brother in jail for the murders, even though the whole story was questionable. Now as a 30-something adult, she reopens the case and with it, a flood of memories that she’s spent her entire life avoiding.
What I love about this character is she’s half crazy herself. She’s a klepto, somewhat of a pyro, and was so emotionally damaged from the murders that she literally can’t even. There are days for her when getting out of bed to use the bathroom is a day of accomplishment. (Something even tells me she would still be this way even if her family hadn’t been murdered.) And now this woman is fighting through her past to potentially catch the real killer and get her brother out of jail (IF that’s even the case…see, no spoilers!).
Libby is as round a character as you can get without being so oxymoronic that it’s stupid. I think that might be the problem with a lot of our own characters. We try too hard to make them cruel, but with a kind streak. Or popular, but with a dark past. It’s too cliche. Don’t try so hard.
The beauty is in the subtleties of characters.
Take Hermione Granger for instance, your favorite bookworm. Rowling didn’t make her book smart but socially awkward. That’s cliche. That’s boring. She made her book smart with a sharp tongue that makes her an outcast at first. That’s different. That’s interesting.
When you’re developing your characters, really get to know them. What is their history? What happened on their fifth birthday? What do they most want for Christmas? Let the little things drive the big things. For example, if you’re going to make them an alcoholic, you better have a really good reason for doing so. Give them a buildup, not just one catastrophic event. (Libby was already a liar before her family died, so it’s not a far stretch for her to become a klepto after.) When you think of people changing, people you know like family and friends, it’s usually gradual. What makes it sudden is that you don’t always realize the change until it’s too late. Give this to your characters. Make them real. Make them have depth.
Eventually the dove will turn black too, but not at first. Don’t spoil the journey by telling us the end. It’s called story-telling for a reason.
[For more words of wisdom and random Pinterest memes and quotes, follow me on Twitter @tclem91. I also posted a cute video of my puppy last night that you HAVE to see.]