I’m sorry this post at the top is a mess. I cannot take the full sized image down or close the gap.
I love it when a character pops up before the plot does. Reece Carson, the protagonist in Body Wave, wanted a series. She’s not a tough loner or hard core kick ass type of leading character. In fact, in the back of the book when the antagonist is outed and putting the hurt on her, the bad guy makes a point of laughing at her lack of fighting skills. But as a medical person she knows how the body works. When the chips are down, she can deliver.
I think of Reece as a normal heroine that rises to the conflict she encounters or stirs up. A good protagonist makes you care about them early in the book, so that you love them later and even root for them. While it’s easy to write make the reader care, cheer, and then send an e-mail to the author begging for more books, the real question is how does the writer evoke the emotions in the reader?
Warning. It’s not easy. In my opinion, the safest first step is to give the character something common to yearn for. Ordinary things that readers can identify with. Reece wants her business, Text-A-Nurse, to succeed, and she wants someone to love. So, I gave her what she wants but built in conflict along the way. For instance, Reece started her business with a nursing degree and ten years nursing experience. She did not go learn about small businesses, and she accepts barter from those who can’t afford to pay. Normally, barter could be a kill shot to any business endeavor. One of my beta readers commented she was going to have IRS problems for bartering, like that was a negative factor. Heck no, Reece needs to overcome conflicts and problems to keep the business going within the series. Her brother-in-law points out she should go back to school and become a NP, so she can bill insurance carriers. I think because she’s willing to barter her professional services for simple things like flower cuttings or a casserole the reader will appreciate that she takes business risks to help others. And why did I put barter in her story?
Too humanize Reece as someone who cares. She doesn’t say she cares; she takes action to show it. Plus, the sparks fly when she meets someone whose concern for others is even stronger than her own. Naturally, there are barriers against them getting together but …(no spoilers)
The reader chooses the genre, so they don’t really expect a heroine in a cozy mystery to have the same fighting skills as ex-Seals featured in a thriller. They do want a character to love, cheer, and identify with. That’s why understanding genre is important because readers have expectations. Give the readers what they want, but dribble in interesting tidbits that the character may not want or desire. In one part of Body Wave, the friends of a dead woman are rescuing the cats. One cat in particular is given to Reece. She admits, “I don’t like cats.” Dixie says, “its a rescue not a marriage.” Reece still isn’t buying it. The cat in question is a black cat described as looking like the cats in Egyptian art but without the gold collar. It hisses and attacks like a guard dog. She says, “Clean kitty litter? No.” Another woman, Dot, points out, “you’ve cleaned up far worse at the hospital.” Reece takes the cat. Throughout the book, she slowly adapts to having a pet she didn’t want.
Another important facet of character building is showcased in a character’s inner thoughts and hidden conflicts. For instance, Reece was worried for patients when she turned in her best friend’s drug use to the best friend’s nurse manager. She wanted to protect patients and help her friend get rehab. What we learn is that when Reece’s friend is confronted, she quits on the spot, and moves on to wreak havoc somewhere else. Then when her friend is caught and serves time Reece feels guilty she didn’t do more. Yet, as the book wears on its revealed she did more than the average friend would do, but she just couldn’t take the stand as a character witness when her friend is finally caught. Her bottom line is vulnerable patients come before friendship, even though it leaves Reece with bad dreams.
Reece and her sister, Heather have an interesting dynamic. Heather is outgoing and the older sibling. Heather takes risks, Reece likes her feet on the ground. They are close, but Heather is the sibling in control within their relationship. They hold on to one another because all of their blood relatives are dead. As the story takes off, Reece through her actions and internal conflicts begins to flip the dynamic until the end of the story where she puts her sister’s well being ahead of her own. The exact opposite of the way things were. Reece is outgrowing the boundaries established in childhood and she’s changing. I think the sister relationship endears Reece to the reader.
One key bit of advice that needs mentioning. In order for the protagonist to surprise the readers, she’s got to shock the other characters in the book. The other characters follow a normal person thinking process, but the main character should be dynamic, surprising, and she should be spontaneous. As the writer, you’ve got to put the main character in jeopardy or at risk when they’re not surrounded by helpers. If you don’t do this, conflict remains low key. Reece discovers her best friend is dead when she’s supposed to be heading home to get ready for a clinic that starts at eight thirty. Yeah, she’s headed in that direction and then boom. Off she goes and escalates the story conflict and in doing so she throws the other characters out of balance too. Does she call her boyfriend to meet her there? No. Why not? Because she wants her friend to talk to her, not be defensive because she feels ganged up on. Characters need good reasons to wade out into jeopardy, give them reasons and make them spontaneous. In a room full of people, you’re character should stand out like a spotlight is on them in every scene or heck put them up on a table dancing to Springsteen. They have to stand out from the other characters as unique.
Ah, the stakes. What are the stakes if the character doesn’t accomplish their goal? At her core Reece is motivated to search for lost people or solve a mystery because it matters to someone else. Her desire to help is a key component in her psyche, but when she senses lies, cover ups, or something heinous she begins to work for the victim. In the story, one of of the characters calls her a medical detective. By the end of the book, she accepts the moniker. Detectives follow clues; nurses track symptoms, and in the end both want to identify a culprit/diagnosis. In the first book, Reece makes a promise to solve a mystery and right a wrong to her dying aunt. That’s her personal stake. When she doesn’t show up for another patient as promised and the patient ends up dead, well, that’s another motivating and personal stake. One she failed at. She’s driven to find answers. This creates a double whammy.
Finally, I gave Reece an intense love interest. This man takes her right out of her controlled normal, melts her defense mechanisms, and, (I hope) created a memorable love interest for the series. But can she keep him? We’ll see.
Likable and lovable characters are important. It took me a while to like Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones). What won me over was when she began to acknowledge her faults. She’s still not lovable, but does have close moments. On Perception, the main character is an out of control paranoid schizophrenic who is also brilliant. I almost stopped watching because the character is trying to control his disease without medicine. I hate sending mixed messages to the public when it comes to mental illness. But the urge to hang on to the memories of his dead girlfriend did tug at my heartstrings, even though it came at the expense of his own health and well-being.
Wooden characters show up when a writer hasn’t quite humanized their character. They don’t tell us their fears or what makes them happy. Do this through their inner conflicts. One of the first things you should ask a beta reader is > Do you love him/her? Don’t spend so much time on what the main character looks like, put every spare moment in making her human and larger than life. Please spread the word about Body Wave for sale on Amazon.