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Building & Revealing Characters

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By now, you’ve assembled a great deal of information about your characters. You can see them, you know what they’re thinking, and you know what they want. But conveying this information to your reader is its own unique challenge.

Just as you can’t rely on mere exposition to explain what happened before your story, you can’t preface your story with an interview with your character. Character is something you build throughout the course of your story. Recall that major characters, like your protagonist, are ones that will change during the course of the story; who they are in the beginning is not who they’ll be in the end.

That said, you’ll want to give the reader an impression of who the character is at the outset of the story. Fitzgerald uses the first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, to gradually reveal information about Gatsby; the reader learns more information about Gatsby as Nick learns about him. You might use minor characters to reveal information about your character if you’re writing from a point-of-view that is not the protagonist.

The protagonist must also be likeable (at least to an extent). If your reader cannot identify with your character, cannot picture themselves in the character’s shoes, then they won’t want to read on. While fiction is plot-driven, the reader isn’t going to care about your plot unless they care about your protagonist. You have to make the reader root for your character; we have to want them to succeed (as with Gatsby).

This doesn’t mean that your character should be perfect—quite the opposite, actually. We don’t want to read about perfect people; if a character is the most beautiful and talented person in the world, and if she has everything they want, there’s no story there. Besides, nobody wants to read about a character who’s perfect.

You may recall that every character in William Shakespeare’s plays has a “fatal flaw”: a personality flaw that will cause the character to fail, that Achilles’ heel that the antagonist will exploit. When you are building your own characters, think about what sort of flaws they have. The flaw should make sense for the character, as in, it should be related to their background/beliefs. You can’t assign flaws arbitrarily—the flaw should arise from the circumstances of your character’s life, where they are, who they know, how they were raised and how they’ve been treated.