How do you design character hooks?

  1. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    How do you design interesting protagonists that can carry an entire novel? Here's why I ask.
    • I'm a pro business writer and editor. I have no problem throwing words on paper and I'm told I'm technically proficient.
    • I've been inventing stories and characters since I was a kid. Most of them see the life of day through roleplaying - live and tabletop - where there's a peculiar dynamic in that its a collaborative medium, so normally I'm inventing things for other people to riff off.
    • In the last 3 years I've written 4 short stories and 2 full length novels. The first was really an apprentice piece. The second is currently being read by friends for some feedback. I'm pretty happy with the second one.
    So basically I have many of the tools I need to write, and I've proven twice that I can tell a story over 100k words, but I've stalled in the last 6 months. I've got 3 drafts of 3 different stories started, all executed to between 10 and 20k words, then I stall. Not because I lack ideas, but I've been going over what's blocking me and looking back at what I've read and admired recently and it all comes down to characters. Specifically the main character(s). I haven't put as much work into working out the characters in my recent drafts, so they are failing to engage me and carry the story.

    So... tips for fleshing out characters, inventing characters with quirks and depth that will carry a reader, intrigue them, etc... please :)
     
    Feb 13, 2018
    #1
  2. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Actually, thinking about what I've read and liked/disliked this year, a couple of contrasting books.

    The Peripheral by William Gibson. I LOVE William Gibson. I've started the Peripheral twice, and stopped twice, because none of the characters grab me. I can't even remember any of their names. They did things, but I don't remember any real sense of why or what motivated them.

    At the opposite end, I loved Artemis by Andy Wier. I listened to it on Audible and the narration was fantastic, but the main character Jazz was an instant hook for me. Why? I guess she was written as smart and rebellious, she made poor life choices, she was impoverished and had a clear motivation (get rich quick) which was actually her just being shallow and not admitting to herself that she had a higher motivation (defend her people, do the right thing), and while she would fight, she wasn't a boring uber-tough hero, she needed to use her smarts to win. She had a complex relationship with her father which both helped and hindered, and you got a sense from her interactions with him about how she'd wound up the way she was.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
    #2
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  3. Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee Aliens vs Belfast.

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    blah - flags. So many flags.
    When I flounder I stop and ask what my character’s agency is - what they want to ultimately achieve. I find a strong sense of intent goes a long way.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  4. Cathbad

    Cathbad Level 30 Geek Master

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    For the hooks, I prefer harpoon tips. They hold the victim easily without tear- ... um... never mind.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  5. janeoreilly

    janeoreilly I like Captain America and biscuits

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    That's really interesting actually, because I hated Jazz with a passion exactly because she was shallow and selfish and immature. She got herself into situations where a woman would automatically have concerns for her self preservation and safety without hesitation and she was selling flammable insulation to the poor people on the station for easy money despite knowing that fire could kill everyone in the dome.

    To make it work I think you have to tie the character very tightly to the plot, so that the character's goals and the situation they find themselves in are in opposition because that's how you make things interesting for the reader. You need to keep asking yourself why - why would they make that choice, why are they like that, and really dig into the character until you know enough about them. Some people use character interview or charts (there are loads of these if you google them). The book Save the Cat has some good things about characterisation in it.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  6. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I think it would make sense to give them a goal and a weakness, and perhaps a particular quality that makes them the right person for the job. So, looking at Count Zero by William Gibson:

    Bobby is a kid who really wants to be an ace hacker. He's enthusiastic and tries to help but is in over his head.
    Marly is an art dealer who really wants to get her reputation back. She is given great power but by a dangerous man who may betray her.
    Turner is a mercenary who has been given an important job after a disaster. He is hunted when the job goes wrong, and must protect a strange girl.

    It's also worth noting that both Bobby and Marly are fundamentally pleasant people who've had bad luck, and Turner is given some moral grounding in his relationship with his brother and Angela. They're also all dynamic, in that they're trying to better themselves, which I think is innately appealing in characters.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  7. Luiglin

    Luiglin by day Stuart Orford by night Dark Lord's scribe

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    To quote a line from a book itself.

    "First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

    Do the same with your characters.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  8. Steve Harrison

    Steve Harrison Well-Known Member

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    I try to find something about a character that is 'real' and readers can relate to. My current MC is a police detective who is dying of kidney disease. His wife wants him to take it easy so that he is fit and ready if a kidney becomes available, but he knows he's both too old to have a realistic shot at a transplant and too obsessive to take it easy on his current case. He is literally working himself to death and battling guilt because he is pretending to his wife that he is going easy and also fighting the disease and a failing body as he tries to bring a criminal to justice, perhaps for the last time. He has no intention to leave unfinished business, even if it kills him.

    Readers can relate to guilt, disease and pushing themselves too hard and hopefully will feel sympathy for, and frustration with, this character. And dropping him into an intricate crime investigation should (!) provide a compelling read with some depth.

    The point I am trying to make is that you don't need quirks, you need to create someone your can convince your readers is real. Someone like them or someone they know or someone they aspire to be. Someone they understand.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  9. Susan Boulton

    Susan Boulton The storyteller

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    Huh? What is a character hook? Maybe my approach to writing is a bit old fashioned. I just try to create an interesting character that is, "real," in the world they exist in.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  10. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Just what you say - something that makes the character interesting. Something that hooks the reader and makes them want to read more, find out more about the character.
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  11. Boneman

    Boneman Well-Known Member

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    Write the character in 1st person if you want to truly get inside their heads... then turn it back to your preferred pov... or leave it in 1st!
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  12. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    Save the Cat
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  13. Paul Meccano

    Paul Meccano Meccano Magic

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    ohh! I can see the last post from here
    I prefer characters that are drawn in for the wrong reason, you know, an everyday person suddenly in charge of a bomb disposal...Booom! ( don't worry that wasn't the MC) That type of thing.
    Essentially I know I just blew that person up. However, prior to the bomb going off we found, (if you go back a paragraph) that an awful lot of their character shone through before the bang.

    'Yep, its Nathan again...Look I'm shaking Drake, this wires gonna be hard to keep between the cutters, you know, shaking like this.' Nathan's corded shorts weren't protecting his legs much whilst jammed under the van, without shoes his feet had become really cold.

    'Dont shake the wires Nathan!' squealed captain Drake, '...we'll be lucky to get through this.' he added under his breath to Samuel.

    'Okay...I'm shaking more now, I don't work under pressure; I tend to shy away, you know, faint...sometimes?'

    'Don't faint Nathan!' Squealed the captain again.

    'Okay...Now...I'm really shaky...'

    A large explosion was heard and the captain had lost another thin and poorly conceived character. 'I hate corduroy' He said to Samuel 'especially brown.'
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  14. Lumens

    Lumens Hellenologophobia sufferer

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    Great thread! Exactly when I need it, too. :)
     
    Feb 13, 2018
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  15. sknox

    sknox Member and remember

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    I look at what the character thinks she wants (my current MC is female) and why she can't have it.
    Then I thinking about what the character needs, about which she may not even be aware. How does she come to understand her needs versus her wishes, how do I keep her from those, how does she attain them in the end, and at what price?

    I will sometimes write side pieces that are almost all dialog. Have her talk with her best friend. With the villain. Maybe even with herself. Have arguments about god and country and whether robots should vote. On the comparative virtues of dragons or the vices of elves. Preferrably something not directly relevant to the story. The idea is to take the character out for a few beers and a ballgame. When they want to tell me their life story, I listen.

    I make sure I give them vices as well as shortcomings or weaknesses. A vice, after all, can be a strength. I look for something in their past that hurts. I look for what makes them giggle.

    There's a ton of reference material on character. Something out there will click with you. The trick is to find a way to use it.

    Oh, one other thing. Sometimes when I'm getting bored with the characters, which can happen even if they start out interesting, it's because I'm paying more attention to the plot than to the characters. I get preoccupied with getting them from A to B, throwing them into the big battle I know must happen--basically, hurrying them along. They start to behave as cardboard characters and I get bored with them and it takes me a while to realize what has happened, and that I'm going to have to do some interweave writing to get the story back on track. I do some of my best cursing, those times.
     
    Feb 14, 2018
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  16. Shorewalker

    Shorewalker Well-Known Member

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    I personally like to write down the backstory...or know it intimately...and then write the character as a product of their circumstances. If the backstory isn't interesting, the character themself is unlikely to be so. Perhaps the backstory gives them a purpose...or perhaps the purpose is rebellion against the backstory.

    Either way, what has happened to them usually informs what they do, but if nothing has really happened to them, you're limited with what to work with to flesh them out.
     
    Feb 14, 2018
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  17. tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    It's a matter of knowing your character. Then you need to weed through what you know and present what is necessary and figure out the difference.

    Then be careful about how you present it as back--story--flashback--recall.
    Some instances might need a constant drip of information.
    Or.
    Occasional drizzles.
    Or.
    In the rare occasion sometimes a torrential downpour.

    Try to stay ahead of occasions where you need to verify skills so the reader doesn't feel like you shoehorned that skill in just to fit the scene.

    Then for other things think about the senses and how they bring back memories of things::

    The taste of an apple reminds them of the apple pie their aunt made in that summer when all those horrible things happened.

    The smell of cinnamon reminds them of all those technical books read during college, when they'd sat in study hall with the cinnamon toothpick in their mouth to assuage the craving for cigarettes and they decided that they wanted to be an engineer.

    The sound of music that reminds them of a social life at the time of their first intense relationship and how that had gone sour and now they couldn't understand why that music seemed so annoying that they had to shut it off.

    The feel of sheer drapes against their skin that makes them cringe while drying the hands and reminding them of the feel of gunny sacks used to store potatoes when they worked on their uncles farm. And how the smell of the sacks and the earth brought on visions of the fields of wheat and distant wild flowers all basking in the hot sun that left their bare limbs flush and tingling. And how their uncle would break out into serial sneezing fits from allergies. Then they let go of the drape and sneezed, though they'd never been allergic to anything before.

    Or whenever they see a pot of arranged flowers it reminds them of mother and the flowers she kept around the house and how fresh they always were. And how at her funeral there were dozens of arrangements that all seemed to be inadequate, while the combined smell was overwhelming and quite funeral. And how every year at the grave-site they marveled at the arrangement left there and wondered who might have place them there. Including that one day they woke from a fog to find themselves in front of her headstone with flowers in hand and the planter empty...still wondering.

    Overall--it has to appear somewhat organic in nature.
     
    Feb 14, 2018
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  18. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    I spend a lot of time daydreaming about the emotional highs and lows my characters will experience, and will often listen to music appropriate to those moods to help me visualise them.

    The big challenge is having smaller ups and downs on the character roller-coaster between the really big ups and downs. And being able to communicate something of those feelings in the writing. :)
     
    Feb 14, 2018
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  19. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Darth Buddha

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    Great question and not something I do super consciously do. I start with a base idea of something interesting to me, then keep thinking and prodding at it until its something I have to write.

    The base idea is usually "What if X was Y" or "What if X had to do Y", something like that. I mean, to talk about my two favourite MC ideas...

    Albric came about because I wondered about D&D Paladins as detectives. It mutated a lot through thinking about it but that was the core. There's a great Jim Butcher post somewhere talking abut how he created Harry Dresden in terms of thinking about what a detective and wizard had in common; riffing off that really helped me develop the idea.

    The other, Huwen - who might never get used because I can't write his voice - came about because I wanted to write Taken meets Moorcock/80s Fantasy, so I needed a character that was a mix of those two MCs/covered a fantasy assassin who had to travel to other worlds seeking their kid.

    The thinking and prodding... sometimes I steal regular life people for inspiration. Sometimes it comes from writing, or looking at other characters and stealing ideas...

    One good angle comes from thinking about the supporting characters. Good supporting characters always have some trait in common with the MC, something where they contrast and the contrast says things about the characters. Once you start thinking about those dynamics, that's where you really get things going.
     
    Feb 17, 2018 at 1:47 AM
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  20. AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Confuddled

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    For me it is more about creating a fully rounded person than a hook for a character. That person has things they like and experience their world through the same senses that you have. Knowing what they wear may give you a piece of jewelry to play with or a hole in a stripey sock for a toe to wriggle through and create discomfort when they put those new squeaky cowboy boots on. One character may sit on a sofa decorated by his cats: Dempsey, Makepeace and Tripod and together they watch Bergerac. He is a police officer and he rescued Tripod when he was a kitten. A car may tell a bit more about them. Their home is a big one one of my MCs paints his house the same way every 5 years. The only new innovations are electric kettle, microwave, shower and a flatscreen TV his sons bought and he hates but the digital recorder is useful when grandkids stay over.

    I aim to get the story and character well underway in 250-500 words.

    It may sound crazy but I recommend Dolly Parton songs. She introduces her characters and rounds them out and tells their story in a few hundred words.
     
    Feb 17, 2018 at 1:44 PM
    #20
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