How Well Do You Know Your Characters?


Character Development was the topic of a discussion I was having with a group of writers. I went through a general list of things I run up against when reading manuscripts – things that make my teeth itch. Things like:

  • React vs. Proact: Main character spends more time reacting to situations than proacting – being in control. This makes your main character disappear into the wallpaper.
  • Cliche: The cop who drinks and smokes too much, his apartment is always messy, and he’s divorced. Really? Why are there no healthy, happy, clean cops in these stories? Cliche characters is sloppy writing.
  • Weak supporting cast: Sometimes authors employ a weak supporting cast in order to elevate their main character. The result is a flat story. You need a strong supporting cast in order to have something solid for your main character to play off of.
  • Cause and Effect: If your intent is that your main character is viewed in a certain way, then you need to writer her that way. If she’s well respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who finger-curls her hair and says, “yanno” a lot. The dim bulb can’t be the Ivy League magna cum laude. If they are, then it has to be fully explained. Readers won’t go from Point A, to Point B and C unless you logically and artfully take them there.
  • Why Him/Her?: Your main character is your main character for a reason, which means they have some kind of trait(s) that are worthy of exploration, and is solely unique to this character. After all, anyone can save the world from that giant Twinkie, so why is Roger Ramjet the lucky one to do the honors? What makes him the only character to solve this problem?
  • Lack of a Personality: If you’ve chosen Roger Ramjet, then you need to give him a personality worthy of being up to this particular sequence of events. He’s gotta be real, with a personality we can touch. What kinds of quirks do they have? What are they afraid of?
  • Evolution: Characters who don’t evolve aren’t real. You know that saying about how no one gets out of this life alive…well, we don’t get out of this life unchanged, either. Characters who don’t change aren’t characters we can care about. If Margie is as dumb as box of rocks at the beginning and remains so at the end, then lots of readers will toss Margie against a wall and quit reading.

So all these things we talked about boiled down to one thing: How well do you know your characters? Many insisted they knew their characters very well, but then I asked how they felt their characters had evolved, I saw some thoughtful expressions. I asked why they chose THIS particular character to star in their stories, and saw some thoughtful expressions.

One author mentioned how she had killed off one of her characters and that he sat on the couch and told her all the reasons he should remain in the book. Ok, we realize that writers are the only people who can read that and not insist that little men in white coats carry them away, away, away….

After that experience, the author began to journal each character in her books, in each character’s POV.

I heard angels sing and watched a shaft sunlight blast through the clouds. What a brilliant idea. I know it’s not a new one, but it had been years since I’d heard it, and I thought this would be a good reminder to all you wonderful people.

And yeah, this goes for you nonfiction writers as well.

I see too many stories where I don’t feel the writer knows their characters well enough, and the result is lifeless, flat things that I don’t care about. A journal in your characters’ POV forces them to unveil themselves to you. You may realize things about them that you’d never thought of. This may be information you don’t plan on using…but you never know.

For example, I write bios for all my characters, and I ended up using some of the goofier traits here and there to add color and dimension to my characters. I do that to make sure those characters are as real as my fleshy friends.

And let’s face it, if you don’t have wonderful, rich characters, your book will probably fall apart. If the characters are fabulous, then I’ll follow them anywhere – even into the dentist’s office. But you can only attain that fabulosity if you know them really, really well.

3 Responses to How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

  1. ericjbaker says:

    Darn it, I was writing a novel about a giant Twinkie trying to take over the world, but now it won’t seem fresh. Uh, the idea I mean. Twinkies stay fresh for ages.

  2. Fear not. Anything consisting of Twinkies is a guaranteed bestseller. Write on, and be unafraid…

  3. Val says:

    I like the character who refused to die!

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