Are you wearing your character?

I’m on a character kick these days. Yesterday I wrote how I like to be properly introduced to characters in a story, no matter how small, because I need a frame of reference in which to appreciate their existence in your story. After all, you felt it important enough to write ’em, so let me know ’em.

But the rejections don’t happen due to lack of proper introduction. There’s more, so let the beagle fire up the blender. Margaritas for all, beagle! Yes, yes, you may use my stash of tequila. Piker.

Lately I’ve been issuing a lot of rejections because the characters just aren’t developed enough, so it’s laborious to read the story. As I bleat like a goat on crack, characters are the vehicle in which the sequence events move along in a logical manner. They are the jam in your jelly doughnut, the the cream in your Twinkie, the steak to your baked potato.

Things I see going wrong have to do with flatness of the characters. No dimension, no color, no flavor. Their reactions to situations don’t make sense. This bores me and irritates the beagle.

This tells me that they aren’t “wearing” their character. If you’re going to write a character, you have to know who they are, how they feel about certain issues, what they like, what they drink. You have to know them as well as you do your spouse [no silly jokes here, thankyouverymuch] or your best friend. And it’s not just one character, but all of the main characters.

Very often in workshops I have authors who ask for help in writing a scene. “I need to get feedback on others’ memories of what it was like to be a teenager, fighting with their parents because I don’t know to write this emotional scene between son and mother.” My question is, “Why? This is your story.”

I can understand hearing stories from men about their teenaged angst with their parents and how they felt. If you’re a woman writing the scene, it’s important to have male reactions. It’s research. However, there comes a time when you need to wear your characters like a coat and dig deep to assume their personalities. Only in that place can you find the magic of dimension to make your characters come to life.

A lot of writers I’ve met are afraid to go to the closet and put on that character’s coat – or don’t know to go there. I can’t stress it enough – if you don’t “go there,” you will never know what your characters are capable of doing, saying, feeling, and thinking. I’ve been amazed at some of the things my main characters have said and done – things that I never would have thought possible had I not worn their coats.

Wearing your characters keeps you connected. So go to your literary closet and try on your characters’ clothes and shoes. Heck, the beagle does this on a regular basis. All last week she was Lassie. Geez.

4 Responses to Are you wearing your character?

  1. Pelotard says:

    Mrs. Pelotard said it was a bit scary to come home when I’d been writing a schizophrenic (1st person, to boot). Of course, his reactions to events didn’t make much sense, either, but that was sort of the point.

  2. Steve says:

    I’m dealing with this issue, since I’m a 63 year old man attempting a first novel in the first-person voice of a 14-16 year old female.

    I keep reminding myself that this character does NOT need to be “typical” (Indeed, she should not be, since the theme of the novel is standing up for one’s right to be a unique individual individual and against mindless conformity). But, she should be believable as a person of her age and gender, and readers, who may not be like her, should still be able to relate sympathetically.

    It’s a tightrope, and I constantly worry about getting it right.


  3. Scott says:

    Awesome post and oh, so true. I do an Excel worksheet for all my characters and get down to the nitty-gritty – what they order at the Mexican restuarant besides margaritas, favorite books, movies, other favorite adult beverage, number of siblings, are the parents divorced, deceased, whatever, type of car they drive, if they have a beagle that makes margaritas, if they have a cat that’s locked herself in the bathroom twice this morning (oh, wait, that was me, but it’d work in a book as well), and so on. I mean, how can I truly write about my characters if I don’t really know them? I can’t! Again, great post!


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