“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” Ernest Hemingway,
I was not going to post anything today, but I was trying to write something for my new novel and got stumped by one of the most elementary things in writing, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.
There are several questions a writer must ask themselves when they set out to write anything: What, when, where, and (today’s problem) who? That’s right, characters, every story needs them, obviously, so let’s explore:
As the writer, you are obviously the one to decide about every aspect of your characters; their gender, age, origin, and dispositions are all yours to choose, and that is a lot of freedom. On the other hand you will be restricted by several things as well: what “makes sense”, reader expectation, and your assumptions about certain kinds of people, and where you want the story to go.
What do I mean? Well, a character needs to be believable, doesn’t it? Many stories fall flat simply because their characters behave or talk in a manner no actual person would, which robs the whole story of authenticity. Then comes the sad truth that both you and your readers will expect something from certain kinds of people, whether if it’s a certain lingo, manner of dressing, or behavior, and those expectations might clash with one another. Lastly, you need to incorporate your characters into the plot of your story.
That last point might sound easy, but somewhere within those eighty thousand words there will be a point where you might struggle to find a way to connect the dots of why your character might want to do something that you need to happen without you needed to make sudden adjustment to your character as a whole (which would force you to backtrack and change things).
So what can you do to avoid reaching 150 pages and then getting stuck with your characters being incoherent messes?
- First advice is, as always with writing, read. Read a lot. Get inspired by writers who write good characters that you like, see what they do and how they construct their characters.
- Look at and listen to people. This will help you with dialogue as well.
- Be organized. Make notes about your character, a sort of CV on who they are, where they’re from, what they do etc. This will also help avoid any contradictions from sprouting up anywhere in longer pieces, also note their physical appearance.
- When making those CVs for main characters, really dig in there and put as much flesh on those bones as possible. Give them not only a town of origin, imagine the neighborhood they grew up in, things that shaped their lives, loves and losses.
- If your character comes from a different culture, gender, religion than you, research those groups. It would be pretty embarrassing writing from the perspective of an African-American and succumbing to clichés and stereotypes.
- Don’t be afraid to let go of something that you planned for, but isn’t working.
- Don’t try too hard to emphasize any aspect of your character’s personality, it just reads as forced.
- Know the value of indirect characterization. Don’t rush to write down every character trait explicitly, let the reader see your character being brave/good/cowardly/angry or whatever by the way they act.
- No one is perfect, so give your characters flaws. There is something more endearing about a flawed hero, it makes them all the more relateable.
These are just a couple of tips on how I write characters. I do make a sort of CV for them and often consult it. For side characters who are there for only a few pages you don’t have to bother to do all of that, but if you are trying to make a point through them by making them a woman/black/Muslim/gay or anything, make sure that it’s credible.