by Melissa Eskue Ousley, Collaborative Editor
One of my favorite books about writing is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s an excellent how-to manual to hone your writing skills and create memorable characters. He once said that “books are uniquely portable magic,” and I believe that to be true. There is something absolutely magical about being drawn into a story so deeply that you lose track of time. Reality fades when you are engaged in a book—you forget about what is happening around you because you are entirely focused on the magic of words.
I used to get in trouble for that.
In middle school and high school, I carried books with me everywhere. In class, I’d often finish my work early and reward myself by slipping into the world of story. You would think teachers would appreciate a student quietly reading after finishing classwork, but no. More than one teacher expressed concern I was being antisocial by reading rather than talking with classmates. In spite of that, I was not dissuaded from my love of books. As an adult, I have learned that I’m not the only person who was called out for reading as a kid. Maybe you were too. If so, welcome to our little club. We’re not antisocial—we just appreciate good writing when we see it.
What is good writing? There’s an art to world building, seamlessly hiding all the scaffolding that holds the story together. Here are three ways to make your writing stronger.
Flesh Out Your Characters
Every story needs description. Remove that, and your characters are simply dialoging back and forth, like shadow puppets. We want to know who your characters are, what they look like, what they want, love, and fear.
What are their physical characteristics? Is there something notable about their appearance? Do they have scars, tattoos, or something else that distinguishes them from other characters in the story?
A common pitfall when introducing a character, however, is to list off a bunch of physical traits:
Cinnamon—who went by Cinna for short—had long auburn hair and striking green eyes. She was of average height and had always thought of herself as just a normal teenager. But there was something special about her, even if she didn’t know it yet.
Okay, yeah. A little YA joke for you. If your main character doesn’t have a funky name, green eyes, and isn’t the chosen one, what are you even doing with your young adult novel? (Kidding—I really do love YA. And I too have been guilty of the dreaded info dump.)
It takes skill, but your writing will be much stronger if you’re able to weave in physical characteristics a little a time, sometimes in place of dialogue tags. Show us what your characters are doing with their faces and bodies as they converse.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Cinna avoided eye contact, wrapping her long, delicate fingers around her warm coffee mug, gently blowing away steam before taking a sip.
Create an Emotional Connection
Memorable stories engage readers on an emotional level. We can relate to the characters, and we think about how we might react in a similar situation.
Show us why we should care about your characters. As you flesh them out, think about your characters’ psychology, what motivates them and why they act the way they do. The better you know your characters, the easier they are to write.
Create an emotional connection between characters and with your reader. This is particularly important when it comes to romance. The stronger the emotions and tension in a romantic scene, the more powerful the scene will be in engaging readers. What is it about the romantic interest that attracts your character? What does your character want? What are they willing to sacrifice to obtain what they desire? What are they afraid of losing? What would they do to protect the person they care about?
Raise the Stakes
No story is complete without conflict. It doesn’t have to be save-the-world-level conflict—you don’t need a magical chosen one for your story to be great. But you do have to introduce a problem and show us how your characters react to it. Maybe your character is dealing with a toxic boss or trying to navigate a social event after committing a taboo. Maybe their family is dysfunctional and the character is trying to break a cycle of trauma.
Whatever the situation in your story, show us how your character performs under pressure. Do they learn and grow, becoming stronger? Do they lash out? Do they have redeemable characteristics? It’s okay if they don’t. Even unlikeable characters can be interesting—sometimes villains are the most engaging characters in a story.
If you’ve fleshed out a morally gray character and created an emotional connection with readers, your story will be engaging and tough to put down.
That is nothing short of magical.
Collaborative Editor Melissa Eskue Ousley is an award-winning author of fantasy and suspense novels. She has over nine years of experience as an editor and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. Melissa enjoys living on the Oregon coast, where she can hike and walk on the beach. She’s been known to nerd out over tide pools and befriend the occasional octopus.