*Photo courtesy of scy from morguefile.com
While plot is a story’s backbone, the characters are its heart, and like the heart, complex and complicated. These are the people with whom your readers are going to fall deeply in love, or come to loathe with the passion of a thousand suns. And that’s exactly the way you want it.
Some writers like to construct a character sheet, write out entire biographies including a physical description and entire back stories before they even start to write. These character sheets can then be tweaked out when the story is complete, because as we all know, characters can have a mind of their own. For editing purposes, a character sheet is not a bad thing to have (although not necessary, especially if you’re using a style sheet) to keep track of age, physical characteristics, idiosyncrasies, etc.
When you’re going through your editing round with the focus of characterization, keep these things in mind:
1. Are your characters strong and interesting enough to carry the story? Or are they stereotypical, boring, cardboard cut-outs? Your aim is three-dimensional, real people with whom your reader can identify. Yes, this most definitely includes the secondary characters.
2. Is your hero/heroine perfect? You know, gorgeous, smart, funny, flawless? Is your villain so evilly evil their evilness is totally evil? WRONG. Perfect anything is boring and unbelievable. Real people are not all one thing or another. Your heroes need faults; your villains need at least one sympathetic characteristic.
3. Do your main characters have a good supporting cast? Fab. Do they have too many? Not so fab. The little guy in the corner with the monkey—is he inimical to the plot, the setting, or to establish the personality or goal of the MC? No? Then he’s got to go. Don’t cry. Write a short story about him as bonus material.
4. In the same vein, make your secondary characters memorable, or don’t use them at all. Even a small detail, like parting their hair in the middle and gelling it down or having an embarrassing skin condition is enough to round them out. Maybe they have a stutter, or an annoying habit like honking through their sinuses or picking their hangnail. Use people you observe as a tool to make your characters real to the reader.
5. Characters should fit your genre, era, setting, etc. This ties in to making your world, whatever it is, believable to the reader. Yes, there is genre blurring but we’re just covering the basics here and this is a topic for another time.
6. Does your character behave in a logical way according to how they are crafted? Not that a character can’t behave uncharacteristically, which could add conflict, but you still have to stay within the personality and behavior you establish with your character. For instance, say your MC is a nurse, and she comes upon an accident by the side of the road. You wouldn’t have her just pass by the accident without stopping to help, unless you’ve established a believable reason for her to do so. Maybe she’s on her way to a more urgent errand, or she stopped at an accident once before and was either injured or sued. You have to lay the groundwork for such an action.
Characters are the beating heart of your story. They are telling the story, after all. Step out of the way of your own ego and let them do their job. Listen to them and what they have to say. If they tell you, “I’d never do that!” or, “I need to do this!” then by all means, work with them. Remember, your outline is not set in stone.
Next week we’ll explore setting—the window dressing for your story.