I just finished reading was Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You about a Chinese American family with a lot of secrets and unspoken troubles. The book in its entirety was fabulous; it made it to several best seller lists, won a few different awards. It was a great book, cover to cover.
What really made it a uniquely enjoyable reading experience for me was Ng’s mastery in the writing of her characters. From the perspective of an omniscient narrator, Ng weaves in between the perspectives of five family members, each with very different motivations and inner turmoil. So there’s a lot going on, lots of different perspectives.
What Ng does so perfectly is that she has hints of those underlying motivations in everything her characters do or say. Everything the mother does or the way she views events is always tinged with longing for what could have been. Everything the middle daughter Lydia does is somehow rooted in meeting expectations.
That seems like a no-brainer, right? All authors should know what their characters want (in general and in each specific situation) and what they do to get it. But these motivations should go beyond the overt actions of a character. Think about how your character’s background might change the way they observe the world around them, how it may impact their interactions with others.
The point here is in order to make your characters distinct and more realistic, have those underlying motivations sprinkled in throughout your story, not just in blatant exposition. In each scene, you should know why your character is doing or saying something. Does that fit with their overall goals in the storyline? Is it something in their past that makes them react a certain way? Make those motivations color your writing about and around that character. Those details should be like an aura that follows them, whether they’re getting ice cream or running for their life.
An excellent example of this from Ng’s book is when she writes about the entire family’s reaction to a specific event, one by one, and how they were affected by it. The last perspective shared is that of the youngest daughter who is often forgotten or goes unnoticed. When the narrator finally gets to her perspective, her reaction to the event is in parentheses. Parentheses! Through punctuation, Ng reminds readers that the youngest child is used to being forgotten, being an afterthought, and therefore her reaction is a parenthetical addition to the rest of the family. Brilliant.
So as you’re writing your characters, think about your punctuation, your word choice, and how you’re describing your character moving through space. How can your writing inform the reader of that character’s motivations without saying it outright? Let your characters come alive in the details.