Although I have never actually written a full-length novel, I am somewhat used to writing fiction and much more experienced with reading it. As a former editor and nitpicker extraordinaire, I have picked up a few things along the way about writing. As a way of sharing some of that and also writing something easier than my actual novel as I force myself to continue, I will be writing a few posts about what I have learned.
Characters are possibly the most important element of a fictional work. Many successful pieces of fiction have endured by having memorable characters that illicit a reaction from the reader, despite (in some cases) other flaws or problems with the work. People respond to characters, and if they make a true connection, they will remember more about the character than any other part of the work. For example, the word “quixotic” is still in the public lexicon, despite the fact that few people have read Don Quixote. The character has the power to endure because people can identify with him.
Defining a character is not easy. A work may call for several different kinds of characters, many of whom you will not like, agree with, or represent. It is important to remember that you are NOT your character, even if you are. One of the best tools I know of for defining characters is quite simple: ask yourself questions about them. Better yet, ask the character in your head and figure out how he or she would respond.
When you think about it, a situation is really a question of how a character responds. The different reactions are what make characters unique and interesting. Furthermore, the characters themselves may react in different ways depending on the circumstances.
In any case, start simple. Here are some questions that might help you define a character:
Questions to ask yourself:
What is the character’s name?
What does the character look like?
Why is this character necessary?
Would I like this character?
Does this character remind me of anyone I know?
Questions to ask your character:
What are you afraid of?
What is your favorite food?
What kind of books do you read?
Do you prefer the heat or the cold?
What do you dream about?
What is your favorite word or phrase?
What is your favorite curse word?
What makes you uncomfortable?
How do you feel about your hometown/family?
Where would you like to be right now?
What is the most important quality for an individual?
Keep in mind that not every question applies to every character. However, it may help to ask an irrelevant question, just to see how your character would respond. Furthermore, it is often more likely to know why a character has traits than that the character has them. Although it is not necessary for your characters to be highly original, they must not be simple stereotypes. Take the time to make them your own.
You will likely know more about the character than you will need to present, particularly for minor characters, so don’t feel the need to include all the information about someone.
Lastly, although there is no substitute for good characters, there is no need to make the characters the central aspect of a work, especially if it’s not your talent.
Tomorrow: Plot and Setting, bitches.