One of the biggest thing that readers need is to related to and understand your characters. If a character does something–particularly something out of character–the reader needs to understand why the character takes this action.
Why does the reader need to understand your characters?
1-Understaning means a stronger ability to relate to that character. Think about a character such as Dexter who is a serial killer. He is also the hero of his own TV series. How can he be a hero? He can be because a) the viewer understands him by getting insights to him (that’s why he narrates the episodes) and b) he kill only people worse than him. The understanding of WHY he does what he does is vital to making that character work because the viewer can relate to this killer. He’d be a harder sell to anyone if he acted without clear motivations.
2-Understand means a stronger ability to find the actions plausible. Yes, smart people do dumb things. But when smart fictional character do dumb things a reader tends to think that character is dumb. Fictional characters have to be more consistent that real people. This means if a smart character does something dumb the reasons for that dumb action have to be understood by the reader so the action seems plausible. At the very least think about making your characters self-aware enough that they know they’re doing something stupid–but they’re going to do it anyway because they’re desperate or angry or frustrated.
3-Understanding means a stronger chance of making that character likeable. We tend to cut our close friends and close family members more slack. If a reader doesn’t understand a character, the reader is distanced from that character. This means the reader has a harder time liking that character. Understanding is not all it takes to like a character–going back to Dexter as an example, if he killed just anyone you might still understand him but you’d have a harder time liking him. But understanding is a good start.
How do you provide the reader with an understanding of a character’s actions?
Some motivations are obvious to most people. The woman who will take on a tiger to save her baby. The firefighter whose job it is and who is trained to go into a burning building. Or the gentleman who opens the door for a pretty lady. Cultural norms, training for specific jobs, and core human nature behavior are things most readers get without needing the motivations really detailed. But when you get out of these you need more.
If it’s not obvious, make it obvious.
With first person, it’s pretty easy to fit in the character’s thoughts. You can also fit in character thoughts in third person with internal dialogue.
You don’t have to make this too obvious–in other words, you don’t really hit the reader over the head with, “I decided to let the air out of my ex-boyfriend’s tires to let him know I hated him.” That may be a little too direct. Or it may be that you really do need this because it’s the opening of the book and the reader doesn’t know anything about this character. You have to look at where is the scene in the book and do you need to weave in thoughts to let a reader know HOW a character gets to a decision. This is really important if you have something such as a housewife who suddenly picks up a gun and shoots someone–maybe she has a good reason for this, maybe not. If you want the reader to sympathize with the character you need to make sure the reader understands why she picks up a gun and why she’s suddenly able to use it on a person.
Another useful tool is dialogue. You don’t want the dialogue to be too “on the nose” — in other words, dialogue that is only about the plot tends to be stiff and awkward. It won’t sound like the illusion of real people talking. So you want to make sure you have interruption, and emotion, and layers to your dialogue.
With dialogue, you need someone who can talk to your main character. This is often why you include best friends in any story–they’re a great sounding board for your protagonist. Dialogue helps get motivation and understanding on the page. A friend can question the hero or heroine. “A gun? Why did you buy a gun?” the best friend says. And now the heroine can explain–or duck the question, or partially explain how she learned to use a gun from her ex who is an Army Ranger. So best friends can be very useful. They’re great to give the reader insight and an understanding of your main characters.
What about the character who has to act out of character? The person afraid of heights who suddenly climbs up the side of a building? Or the person who is non-violent who hits another person? Or the person who hates water who now dives into a swimming pool?
A great guideline is that the more extreme the action is in terms of taking that character away from their core set of actions, the more you have to motivate that action.
So a woman who has to shoot a man who is threatening her baby, that motivation is clear and strong. Protection of a child is something every reader will understand. A reader may have a harder time believing a woman who shoots a man because he touched her front door. The reader is going to wonder if she’s crazy. Or does she know something the reader doesn’t? As in she recognizes him as the man who killed her sister. This is where the reader NEEDS that critical information in order to understand the character.
It’s fine to have a little bit of mystery with characters–maybe you reveal after the action that this woman did know this man killed her sister. However, if you do too much of this remember you may not have a chance to let the reader know this fact. Hide or withhold too much and the reader may just abandon the story before the reader gets to that fact.
One of the eight rules of creating writing from Kurt Vonnegut is:
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I’ve read more manuscripts by writers who haven’t mastered their craft where you can tell the writers is holding back on information about the character and either hinting at it or just not saying anything. The usual result is I stop reading. As a reader I lose interest and find the characters unlikeable and I don’t understand them. Why would I want to waste my time with such people?
Lack of understanding–not enough information–is a way to lose readers out of your story. Yes, you can also overdo the information. You’re have to be the middle bear and have not too much and not too little and just the right amount of information. This may means another draft, another set of edits, a read through from another writer or a reader, and some more edits.
But do listen to Kurt. Get your characters onto the page, doing things and going them for reasons that the reader understands. And this brings us to the last point.
Remember there is the story in your head, there is the story on the page, and there is the story in the reader’s head. Those three stories don’t always match.
You may understand your characters’ motivations, but did they get onto the page? Did they make it onto the page in a way the reader understands? Or have tangled sentences warped the meaning? Is the writing getting in the way of clarity?This can be a problem for a lot of writers who love words–you opt for those fancy pretty words. Go for clarity instead.
Think about aligning the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head. Go for clear motivations in clear sentences that help your reader understand your characters.
Understanding of your protagonist is important–but apply this reasoning to all your characters. And even to your settings.