For me, characters make or break a story. I’ll forgive a lot of plot holes or even huge stretches of belief if the characters are compelling–if they’re folks with whom I want to spend a few hours. But it’s hard to get that right on the page.
Years ago, when I first started writing, I found my main characters kept shaping up like cardboard stick figures. I tried integrating trails from people I knew, I tried fleshing them out, I tried everything. And then I noticed that I never had that kind of trouble with my secondary characters–they showed up like good actors, hit their marks, said their lines. They brought interesting bits of business with them–they were easy to work with. So I stopped doing all those character sheets and trying to make my main characters into real people–I started treating them more like secondary characters. All I wanted from them–or needed to know–was enough to get the scenes working.
That basically mean I needed name, rank and serial number–well, close enough. I needed to know what they wanted, why they wanted it, and what was keeping them from getting that desire–not just for the whole book, but for every scene.
Now, here’s the thing about this–real people are complicated, contradictory. and often just do not make sense. Real people do things for no good reason–or no reason that’s obvious. Real people change their minds, their lives, and leave you shaking your head. Fictional people need to make a lot more sense.
And that’s where I’d been getting into trouble–I kept trying to make my fictional characters “real”. In fact, I needed the illusion of reality. I needed the characters to be “more” than real. They had to be folks who made sense, who you could understand, folks with who you wanted to spend a few hours.
That’s now something I keep in mind as I write–and the other great ‘ah ha’ moment was one I also keep in mind.
Dialogue is where you best realize your characters–what they say (and do, but mostly what they say and how they say it) is critical. This means you don’t just want plot exposition in someone’s mouth–you want words that are funny, and sad, and emotional, and just words that plain ol’ show the reader this character’s options. That’s where I was really going wrong with my main characters. I had them wrapped up in plot and unable to be who they needed to be in order to be engaging.
So these days I advise anyone who’s having character troubles to go ahead and just turn ’em lose. Cut your characters free and let them lead you places–they may take the story in a great new direction. (And you can always reel them back in once they show up on the page.)
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