A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.
Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.
Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.
These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.
As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.
The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.
As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.
You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.
Types of Characters in a Story:
Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.
The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.
All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.
“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald
Making Your Characters Unforgettable:
- Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
- Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
- Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
- Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
- Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
- Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.
There are some things to avoid.
- All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
- Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.
How do you create these characters?
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.
Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.
Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.
“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”