Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writing Wednesday: The Secret to Great Characters

Character building is not my strength, so I studied a few writers that were strong in that area hoping to build strength in that area. After a while I had to take a break and read something for enjoyment. While reading Isaac Asimov and Edgar Rice Burroughs I found the true secret to having Great Characters in a book. I can hear Stephanie laughing right now as Asimov and Burroughs were even worse with their handling of characters than I am. So how can I learn about making characters from writers who are even worse at it than I am?

What Makes the Reader Identify with a Character?

I recently read an article by a best selling author that I had never heard of and can’t remember his name that said true writers shouldn’t admire Asimov, Burroughs, and Roberts they should despise them. The idea of learning from them is of course absurd.

This best selling author that I never heard of hated the those authors because they wrote novel after novel quickly without agonizing over their 5th revision, or in Asimov and Burroughs case they would have to rewrite a book to make revisions.

Is that any way to become a best seller? Apparently so as they all dominated the best sellers lists of their times.

I decided to glance at Asimov to see what put him on the best sellers list so many times. Warning: do not do that unless you have plenty of free time.

Then I grabbed an Edgar Rice Burroughs book to glance at, and read it cover to cover in one sitting. And that’s when I found the secret to what makes a reader identify with a character, even one-dimensional ones like Burroughs made.

The Secret

I realized a reader will be more likely to identify with a character if they read the book that character is in. This seems like a no-brainer but in a lot of articles talking about building characters they seem to think if you can create and convey an excellent character the reader will read the book because of that.

The problem is most readers won’t read beyond the first seven pages, so if you can make the reader fall in love at first sight with your character that’s great, but if your character has depth that you want to introduce subtly or if you want the reader to see the world you’ve imagined (that’s something I try to do) you have to get them passed that hump.

How to get someone to read more than seven pages, the 3 P’s.

One thing that is common with both Isaac Asimov and Edgar Rice Burroughs, I believe Nora Roberts does this as well but I don’t have a copy of any of her books on hand, is their chapters are short, 1 to 5 pages. The short chapters don’t allow the reader to get bored so they move on to the next chapter and then the next until their legs fall asleep and they look up at the clock and notice 3 hours has gone by.

The way they get the reader to go from one chapter to the next is to end their chapter with what I will call the 3 P’s Peril, Ponder, or Polar Bear.


This is pretty self-explanatory the main character’s life is in danger. They face death, imprisonment, or having their mission ruined. It was a staple of the old serials and while a little clique it kept people returning to the theater every week to hand over their hard earned nickel to see how Commando Cody got out of his latest jam.


A decision must be made. The chapter ends when the hero is forced to make a decision that alters the events of the rest of the book. Naturally the reader must start the next chapter to see what that decision is.

Polar Bear

In the TV series “Lost”, whenever the poor castaways were in danger of having their ratings drop the polar bear would show up. This made the viewers wonder why a polar bear would be on a tropical island and tune in for the next episode hoping it would be revealed. This worked on me about 10 times until I stopped caring why there was a polar bear on the island or anything else about the series. I don’t know that they ever explained why the polar bear was there.

Nathan Branford called this the WTF moment in a book where you put in something strange so the reader has to continue reading to find out what it means. It is a very effective way to keep the reader reading, after all when I said the last P was for Polar Bear didn’t you want to continue reading to find out what I meant?

So how does using the three Ps help in a novel?

Drama and Pacing.

My novel THE PIZZA DIARIES isn’t a straightforward novel, I’ve had some success selling short stories so I thought I’d use this to my advantage and wrote a bunch of short stories with the same main character. Then I wrote a short novella to break up the short stories with third act tying them all together. As the beginning was mostly short stories they were complete individual story arches and each time they ended the reader was faced with the decision, “Should I read the next one?”

By changing where my chapters started and ended so instead of ending at the conclusion of the action they ended in the middle it both heightens the drama as the reader has to think, “What is he going to do?” before going on to the next chapter as opposed to immediately being posed with a threat and resolving it.

Placing the endings of chapters at the three P’s makes every action, every decision and every WTF moment stand out and makes the reader identify more with the main character.

It also makes the reader read more in each sitting than they would otherwise. To offer some proof of this 80% of web surfers only read the first 500 words on a post, that’s where google’s bounce rate comes from. Luckily I have a better audience than most blogs and have a 74% bounce rate, Thank You.

Even if you normally read more than the first 500 words of a post this one probably went by fast and you probably didn’t notice that it is over twice as long as most posts.

By Darrell B. Nelson author of Invasive Thoughts


Stephanie Barr said...

Now, see, your view on chapter lengths is the exact opposite of mine (noting that I grew up reading old classic novels where there might be five chapters in the whole book of 100K+ words). For me, chapter stops are only around to give me a place to put the bookmark when I've been reading too long.

I was and am a book devourer. Long after I should have gone to sleep, I'll tell myself I'll put it down as soon as I reach the end of the chapter. Long chapters have me read longer. Once it's a certain level of late, I don't even bother stopping.

I just did a survey of my favorite books and they average 10-12 pages long. I also dislike cliffhanger chapters. I like them to be finished.

This isn't to say you're wrong. In fact, I think you're absolutely right. For some readers. I've read Asimov and Burroughs (I actually like Tarzan as a character), but they're not what I read for entertainment. I read Nora Roberts and Sharon Lee/Steve Miller and Georgette Heyer for entertainment.

My suggestion would be to do exactly as you have, to look at the writers you like best, the ones you like to read, the ones you think appeal to the kind of readers you want and do what they do with regards to chapter length.

I think you have a masterful review here of things that work in what you're doing (and the P's are useful, I think, in general). It's an exercise we should all try, I think (even if the results aren't always the same). And you remind us of the importance of pacing especially for those of us who lose track of that from time to time.

Project Savior said...

I thought I didn't like cliffhangers for endings, until I looked at the authors I liked and noticed they all use them heavily so I guess I must really like them. Funny how that happens.

Stephanie Barr said...

I do have to kind of take issue with your "secret" for great characters. Although it's true that appreciating a great character is certainly furthered with a narrative worth reading, one can have a narrative worth reading without ever having a good or compelling character. The story can be fantastic, even, without a likable character.

However, one can also entice a reader to read even a so-so narrative, rife with plot weaknesses and incidental flaws, by nature of a compelling character (or more than one). Movies (particularly series of movies) do it all the time, with plots and concepts often growing ludicrous, yet fans sally forth anyway, willing to put up with anything because they like the characters so much. Think Lethal Weapon for an example.

People can do have both in a single book, but frequently readers and writers tend to specialize, emphasize one over the other. Plot or concept driven books vs. character driven books. Asimov, Clarke and Burroughs were really masters at bringing thought-provoking concepts to paper. Heinlein was a master at characterization among the hard science fiction greats, though he had some interesting concepts, too. Readers also tend to specialize, especially in the books they read for their own enjoyment.

There's nothing wrong with either kind of book. Yes, I tend to character-driven books, but there are any number of successful books out there that were successful because of the concepts or plots.

The one thing you don't want, however, is a book with neither.