Characters are People too

I said before that picking the right ideas was the single most important thing that would make or break your story, and that was true. If your story doesn’t flow well or isn’t believable, it’s toast, no matter what you do. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things that can wreck your story almost as easily. One of those is character development.  Believable characters can draw your readers in and make them interested to find out what happens next.  Unbelievable characters can send your readers to find a different book.

What that means is that your characters have to be compelling. They have to be real. They have to be interesting enough that your readers want to get to know them. And you have to paint them in enough detail that your readers can get to know them. The real question, though, is how you know if you have pulled it off. How do you know if your characters are real enough?

The bad news is that I can’t help you with that. I can’t give you a checklist that tells you if your characters come alive. I can’t tell you what to look for. More than anything, that’s because nothing can. Not really. Even if I gave you a checklist and you followed it to the letter, there is no guarantee that your characters will pop off the page. There is no way to assure you that your characters will come alive in your readers’ minds.

Lots of people try, though. Go look at Amazon or Barnes & Noble and there are scores of books about character development. Look on Google and you’ll find hundreds or thousands of articles and checklists and guidelines. I’ve even tried to follow a few of them. I really have. But the truth is that I get bored. Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing good in them because there is. Some people really appreciate them. My trouble is that I have a hard time being formulaic in my character development. The first reason for that is I’m not nearly disciplined enough. I’m just not. I’ve tried to follow folks’ advice before and I peter out before I make it through even a single character. It doesn’t take very long before I get stuck or bored and move on.

The second reason makes me feel better about the first one. The second reason is that it just feels too flat. It makes my characters feel like two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts. They don’t come alive. They just sit there on the page smiling their artificial smiles and the doggone wind keeps knocking them over every time they try to do anything.

Characters shouldn’t be cardboard cutouts.  They should be three dimensional and they should come alive. In fact, they have to or your story is just as dead as it would be without a compelling story. So, again, you ask me, “How can I tell?” or, “How do I build out my characters?” I said the bad news is that I can’t tell you that, and that is true. The good news is that I can tell you how I do it, and I can tell you a surefire way to tell whether you missed the mark.

The easiest way to tell if you’ve missed the mark is by understanding a fundamental truth. Your characters will never be as real to your readers as they are to you. That means that if a character seems extremely real to you, then she probably is real to your readers. If a character feels flat to you, then you had better look out. That character is an imposter posing as a real person in your story. And those imposters will do a lot of damage.

Try an exercise for me. Pick a random character from a story you’re working on.  Got one?  Now, open up Microsoft Word or whatever word processing software you use and start writing what you know about them. Who is the person? What does their voice sound like? What was their childhood like? How do they behave as an adult? What do they like to do? Ask yourself basic questions that you can answer about the real people in your life.

Now push a little deeper.  How might they react if someone insulted them? Or punched them?  What if someone gave them a present?  How would they react if, say, they got a mysterious phone call telling them they only had seven days to live?  What if they won the lottery?

The point is that you should be able to answer these types of questions even if you don’t have detailed events built out to drive their behaviors. You should know how they would react in a given situation. You should know how they would respond. You should know what motivates them, makes them angry, scares them, or excites them. If you don’t, chances are very good that your characters are too flat. You likely need to do some more work.

With under developed characters, you run the risk that your story could be driving your characters rather than the other way around – meaning that you end up shaping your characters to match what you need to happen in the story.  That’s ok if you’re talking about the story as a whole, but doing that at a scene level can be catastrophic.  It can undermine your characters. At best, it can make them seem inconsistent. At worst, it can make them seem like they have a multiple personality disorders. Either way, it can destroy your story.

Join me for my next post and I’ll explore my process for creating characters. It isn’t perfect, but I like it. Maybe you will too.

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  1. #1 by cmjanz on July 31, 2012 - 7:40 pm

    Great piece! I agree fully if the characters aren’t real enough no reader is going to care enough about them to want to spend time with them through a whole book.

  2. #2 by The Writer's Codex on July 31, 2012 - 9:30 pm

    Since I am always on the lookout to learn how others do things, I look forward to your future post.

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