It’s been a while since I took the time to write an actual blog post here. After more than twenty years of teaching workshops and mentoring other writers, I felt as if I’d said all I had to say on the subject of writing and figured anybody who read this blog had already heard it all a gazillion times. But recently, I’ve been feeling the pull to start talking again. I’m not sure why, but when I get the same nudge a dozen times or more a day, I figure it’s probably a good idea to listen.
Rather than ramble at length about a subject or try to condense everything in one of my how-to books into a single blog post, I’ve decided to hit the highlights on a topic or two for a few posts to see how it goes. And so I begin at what feels to me like the beginning of any novel: the characters.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, writing in spurts for many years, and then writing full-time for the past 20-plus years. It’s a great career, but it’s also harsh at times. Competition is fierce, and motivation to keep going is often in short supply. I think most of us write for the sheer love of writing, but when you need to make your living from words in a world where readers are increasingly encouraged to expect books for nothing–or almost nothing–making a living can also be a challenge.
But I digress, as those of you who are here for the first time will undoubtedly discover I often do.
I’m not here to complain about the state of the industry, but to share with you five things I’ve learned about creating memorable characters over the years. And here they are, in no particular order:
Lesson #1: Readers want characters who are sympathetic. Someone with whom they, as human beings can relate.This does not mean that characters must always be likeable, and it certainly doesn’t mean characters must be perfect. Let’s face it: nobody likes a goody-two-shoes in real life, so what makes us think readers will relate to that oh-so-sweet heroine who never has an unkind thought in a work of fiction? To be someone readers can identify with, a character must seem human, which means they may not always be 100% politically correct in every thought, word, and deed. I’m not suggesting that we bend over backwards to make sure our characters are not politically correct. We don’t want to make them thoroughly unlikable, either…unless, of course, that’s part of your grand master plan. I am suggesting that sometimes we work so hard to make sure our characters come across as likeable, we unintentionally make them too perfect. We’re so careful and cautious about making sure they don’t ever have a thought that might offend, we make them uninteresting. I strongly believe that letting a character slip up fro time to time makes them fallible and interesting.
Lesson #2: There are two reasons to avoid the long introspective opening scene in your novel, and one of them has to do with characterization. One reason, of course, is the common wisdom of starting your book with action–and by action (I learned the hard way) that doesn’t mean sending your character on a stroll around the lake while he thinks the reader to death. There is no need to deliver the character’s entire back story in the first 5 pages of your novel. Not only do you give away secrets that might be better to keep hidden for a while, but you risk boring the reader to tears before they can get to the current action in the story. But the other reason, I’ve learned, is that putting your character in a car and sending her along a country road toward Grandma’s house as she reluctantly comes home for her mother’s funeral and thinks about all the reasons she doesn’t want to be there, is a huge characterization blunder. We call it “motivation,” but in most cases, all those pages of introspection often end up making your character seem whiny and self-absorbed to your readers. That’s very difficult to bounce back from, if readers even stick with your book long enough to let you try.
Lesson #3. I’ve learned that making characters too self-aware is also a mistake. In reality, most of us don’t see ourselves as we really are, and the reason our emotional baggage continues to affect our lives and our choices is because we’re not acutely aware of what it is. Of course, we remember the painful experiences, but we haven’t broken it down in precise terms. It doesn’t feel like junk that’s keeping us from moving forward, it feels like the only logical reaction to circumstances and events. The character’s journey through the book is supposed to get her to the place where she suddenly realizes how her baggage is keeping her from moving forward, so making her aware in the opening scenes of a book that she’s avoiding love, because of this or that or the other, is not only somewhat unrealistic, but it makes my job harder. By making my character hyper-aware in the beginning, I’ve cut her journey in half, which means I risk getting repetitive over the course of the book because there’s only so much ground to cover between figuring out what your junk is and getting on the other side of it. On the other hand, by letting her journey from blissfully unaware, to aware, and then to overcoming it, I have a lot more ground I can play with over the course of the book.
Lesson #4: No character was born to be a secondary character. I believe I first read this idea in Stephen King’s book On Writing: Nobody in this world is born to be someone else’s sidekick. Everyone is the hero of his own story. I’ve traced the quote back to 1812 and John Galt, so it’s hardly a new idea, but when I read it in King’s book, is was an eye-opener for me. It’s a good idea to remember that just about everyone in this world is motivated by what they believe to be pure motives. Even people who do despicable things are usually doing what they are convinced is the right thing. As writers, we frequently get this right when motivating our villains, but very often fail to get it right when motivating our primary and secondary characters. Likewise, nobody was born to be a romance hero or an amateur sleuth, yet we often treat our characters as if they were. It’s good for us to remember that the romance hero has no idea he’s the hero in a romance novel, just as the cake artist investigating a murder has no idea she’s the amateur sleith in a mystery. Their sidekicks and supporting cast were each born to be the hero of their own story, so making sure we don’t turn our secondary characters into cardboard cutouts by making them exist only to deliver sage advice to the protagonist will serve us well in every book we write.
Lesson #5: Unreliable narrators are a lot of fun to write. My first experience with an unreliable narrator occurred while writing my very first completed novel, No Place for Secrets . That book taught me a lot, as you might imagine. Until then, I’d started many, many books, but hadn’t finished writing a single one. I learned how to finish and how to plot without killing my creativity. I also learned, thanks to an article in Writer’s Digest by (I believe) Nancy Kress about unreliable narrators and how to work with a character who didn’t see the world the way everyone around him did (Sorry, it’s been about 25 years since I read the article, so can’t provide a link to it) My protagonist started off as a walk-on character who was supposed to discover the body and get shot later in the book. He ended up becoming the protagonist (after much argument on my part) and winning the hearts of readers, some of whom still write to me asking for more books in the series. What made Fred so likeable, I’m convinced, was the fact that the article I’d read made such a profound impact on me that I decided to let Fred be a bit unreliable. He’d had a heart attack before the series opened, but he refused to acknowledge it as anything serious, and his inability to see his own faults created a lot of fun conflict between him, his family and friends and other supporting cast members as the series progressed. Allowing your characters not to be deeply self-aware can make for some very interesting characters.
And there you have it: five things I’ve learned over the years about creating fictional characters. I’d love to hear some of your insights, so please leave comments if you have thoughts to share.