A comment in my last blog post The Truth in Fiction made me think about this. When you’re writing fiction, the whole world is yours. As the writer, you get to create every aspect—from the time period, time frame (I have a book on my To Read list that takes place during two days), language, to the characters that make up the story. You really need to think about everything.
But it’s the characters who tell the story, after all. They’re your medium. But if readers doesn’t care about the characters, why would they care about the story as a whole? Do you think Harry Potter would have resonated with people if the little boy wizard weren’t brave, generous or completely lovable?
A character’s personality can make or break a story. I’ve read many a novels where I thought a character was just too something—whiny, annoying, indecisive (Bella, for example) or just unlikable (like the BFF in “Something Borrowed”). So that’s the question, isn’t it? What kind of personality should your character have?
It’s impossible to please everyone—even within your own genre, so that’s why it’s important to create a personality that somehow drives the story, or does something for the plot. So, although Bella drove me past the point of sanity, I suppose her complete and total lack of social graces and habit of finding trouble everywhere worked well to attract an over-protective, controlling vampire. Their personalities called to each other.
First, think about what the point of your story is. If it’s a love story, somehow, the male and the female leads have to appear compatible. Sure, there’s the whole “opposites attract thing”, but if your male absolutely detests children to the point of gagging each time he sees one, chances are, an elementary school teacher with baby fever is not going to be attracted to him and want spend the rest of her life married to the child hater.
Now, if your female is a bright, educated, opinionated woman who always has to be right, she could very easily be attracted to a man who suddenly challenges her when no one else has had the nerve to stand up to her.
There are lots of wonderful character questionnaires floating around the Internet, begging you to know your character’s favorite color, biggest regret and go-to emotion. Scouring through one of these will really make you figure out what purpose your character is supposed to be serving, and why you think he/she is great enough to lead the story.
Every story needs them. Sometimes, stories introduce too many. Jodi Picoult is my second favorite author (Queen Rowling rules all), but some of her books (IE “Keeping Faith”) introduce too many characters. I get lost. Too many names become too much legwork for the reader. These characters are supporting for a reason. They’re not necessarily important enough to lead, so why waste a reader’s time by confusing them and throwing around a bunch of names?
If you’re going to introduce someone new, give that person some context. This is crucial! Not only because it makes for good storytelling, but because it makes it easier for a reader to remember him/her. Think about when you’re trying to learn someone’s name. Which is more helpful?
- I’d like to introduce you to Benji.
- I’d like to introduce you to Benji, my best friend from grade school—the one who sang NSync with me at the talent show that one year.
It barely takes up any space. Twenty more words than the first sentence, but I bet you’d have better luck remembering who Benji is with option 2.
Here’s a common problem of mine, both as a reader and as a writer. Say you introduce a supporting character in the beginning of your book to have some meaningful conversation with your lead. But then, you don’t need that support until the end of the book. It’s been 300 pages. Can you rely on your reader remembering this person simply by name? Or, should you reintroduce him/her with a little tag, “Becky, the personal assistant to Roger…”? As a writer/reader what do you think? Sound off below.
When you create characters, lead or supporting, ask yourself these questions:
- Does this character serve a purpose?
- Does this character move the story forward in some way?
- Would the story make sense without this character?
I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this. But what I do know is when you read as often as I do, you start to notice themes, writing tricks, and habits that nearly EVERY writer employs somehow. The stories are different, but there’s a formula.