Conditions for Suspense: Part 7 – Character draws 1-4
by John D. Brown
The following is part of a continuing series. If you wish to start at the beginning, head to It’s All About The Reader.
In my last two posts I discussed the fact that readers are not going to hope and fear for a character unless that character raises their sympathy and sense of deservingness. But is that enough? Do readers stick around if the characters are utterly boring? Do you? Most of the time, I do not. So another one of the key conditions for generating reader suspense is providing the reader interesting people to be in suspense about. Heck, sometimes we don’t need much of a story problem at all to generate suspense because the people in trouble are just so dang interesting.
So what makes a character interesting? Well, the same things that make real people interesting. You’ll want to make your own list of things that make people interesting to you because what rocks you might not rock me, but I’ll share the types of things that spark my interest in other people below.
Please note that your characters don’t have to exhibit all of the traits listed. The traits I list in this and the next two posts are simply options to get you thinking. A fascinating character, in fact, might have only one or two of these draws.
People who have power draw our interest. That power may be one of many varieties:
Wealth. They might be super rich like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or the Queen. They may drive the coolest cars and have the most luxurious houses or clothing.
Position. Someone in a powerful position like the CEO of a big company, the general of an army, or the leader of some gang. But it doesn’t have to be huge. A single cop draws attention. As does an IRS agent on your doorstep. The foreman of a crew has some power. The character might not even be the one to hold the reins of power but be a spouse or counselor of someone else who does.
Physical strength. They may be fast or strong or just huge individuals. Maybe they have been trained to use deadly weapons or be one themselves.
People with extraordinary skills or talents draw our interest. It’s why, in fantasies, we’re so interested in those that can actually practice magic. In fact, ability is a type of power. And just like those with the other types of power, these folks evoke wonder, respect, and sometimes awe.
The skills and abilities you’re interested in may differ from mine, but we are fascinated by those who can do things well or have some gift. Maybe they are expert at selling, or making money, or framing a house, or painting, or doing gymnastics, or reading, or hacking into computers, or skydiving, or firing weapons, or riding horses, or hunting, or getting people to like them, or making pancakes, or a thousand other things. Maybe, like Edna Mode in The Incredibles, they have the ability to design amazing super-hero outfits.
Even though your characters have limitations that prevent them from immediately solving the problem they face, you can still give them some kind of an ability that makes them admirable to us. Some gift or talent. And maybe it helps them solve the problem in the end.
People who are uncommon in some way draw our interest. In fact, if you think about those with power and ability, you see that they possess this quality as well. However, you don’t always need power and ability to be extraordinary.
Maybe you’re a normal guy in an extraordinary job. You’re a CIA officer, a smuggler, or a spy. Maybe you raise wolves or are a bounty hunter. Or you hunt bears with a pack of dogs and a horse. Or maybe there’s some other uncommon hobby.
You might argue that these are special skills, a type of ability. They are (who says my categories can’t overlap?). But characters don’t have to be extraordinary in that way. Maybe you simply have extraordinary experience. You fought in a war, escaped prison, were a bank robber at one time. Or maybe you’re just outrageous, bizarre, eccentric, odd, or have some exaggerated quirk.
Maybe you’re a loud-talker, a mumbler, a guy who takes his three parrots with him where ever he goes, a farmer who loves pies. Maybe you’re super thin. Or a cab driver with glasses so thick his passengers immediately wonder if they’ll arrive alive. Maybe you have squeaky shoes. Or are always dressed to the nines and smell of lemons. Maybe you’re one of these people that walk around in their sleep or hold loud conversations with ghosts. Or you’re a coffee freak and drink a pint of black mud each day. Maybe you just have an uncommon name like the folks in the Netherlands who surname is, no lie, Born Naked.
Sometimes these extraordinary things affect the plot. Sometimes they don’t. The point is that the extraordinary captures our attention. When you’re inventing your characters, add something extraordinary. You’ll be surprised at how much more interesting they are to you.
People who are beautiful capture our attention. In movies we see a million bits of information at once. We can see the beauty and respond. But we can’t do that in text. And so we have to evoke the image of beauty in the reader’s mind. A few key details and the way others react to them should be enough.
Now you might think beauty is a superficial method for generating interest, but I think it’s a manifestation of something else more fundamental. If you think about a lot of the interest factors we’ve discussed so far–having special power, wealth, ability, or beauty–they all have a common element running through them. That element is wish-fulfillment.
And we’ll continue with that and three more things that make characters interesting in the next post.
John Brown is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Servant of a Dark God, the first book in his epic fantasy series, was published by Tor Books and is now out in paperback. Forthcoming novels in the series include Curse of a Dark God and Dark God’s Glory. He currently lives with his wife and four daughters in the hinterlands of Utah where one encounters much fresh air, many good-hearted ranchers, and an occasional wolf.
For a list of all of the posts in this series thus far, click on the “John D. Brown” tag.