What’s the best story you’ve ever read?
Whenever someone asks me that question, I always pause to think. I have a long list of books I love and choosing the “best” one is a hard decision. Yet when someone asks, “What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?” everyone always seems to have an answer. You never want your own books to be on that list. That list is bad. Bad, remember? Bad.
So what can you do to avoid the worst, most terrible, awful books list? You can start with your characters. If your reader doesn’t love the protagonist, they won’t love the book. Here’s a good formula to follow:
- The Beginning. In order to captivate a reader, one must have an outstanding opening written. You can rely on various hooks to get you started (action, character thoughts, dialogue, foreshadowing etc.) but what you also need is a memorable protagonist that the reader will care about. Without one of those you’re heading in the wrong direction. If your protagonist is a knight, have them start a scene defending a castle. If they’re a painter, start them off in a painting workshop or a college art class. Building your character by showing the reader their everyday life is a good way to paint a picture.
- The Crisis. This is where the plot really begins. Something happens in your character’s life, something that may change their life forever. It can’t be something easily dealt with (else the reader will grow bored) and it will be the puzzle your protagonist has to face throughout the novel. Whether your hero is sent on a great adventure or must solve a problem in the comfort of their own setting is up to you. There are various ways to introduce a crisis. One would be to rip away everything your character has and now s/he has to fight to reclaim it.
- The Rise. Unless your character is an assassin or a world renowned detective, they have little to no experience to solve the problem given to them—and even my examples work if the story is told right. An assassin’s crisis might be receiving a mark that s/he has fallen in love with and struggling to make the kill, and the detective’s crisis might be realizing an old case was solved wrong and an innocent man is in jail because of him/her. But the point is: every character should struggle with the crisis and then develop naturally throughout the story to fix the problem they face.
- The Revelation. At some point, your hero is going to realize what the solution to their crisis really is. In order to create a strong character, they’ll have to come to this revelation on their own. I’m not saying they can’t have help along the way, but this revelation has to be something the main character ultimately solves by using their own wit or strength or conviction.
- The Transformation. What will be the ending be? What will happen to your character? You have to decide what their fate will be: success, failure, death, etc. Most well written stories have happy endings—or endings that at least leave little room to feel disappointed. It varies depending upon genre, of course. Whatever the outcome, the protagonist will have to make a complete transformation. They will have to change from what they were at the start of the story. Their growth is vital to the plotline. Readers want to see the hero’s story reach his/her end with the experience of all their life-changing events on their shoulders, because without a well-developed protagonist, there is no story.
Understanding your character is the key. Allowing us to also understand him/her is what makes the story. We want to feel real emotions when your character is hurt, upset, happy, etc. We don’t want the hero to feel like a paper cut-out. Build your characters, develop them, and give them life.