So you have the idea for a novel — you’ve got a compelling theme you want to work out, or you’ve got a nifty science-fictional or fantastic conceit that you want to play with, or you’ve got the outline for a marvelously well-fitted and dovetailed plot — and now you need characters to fill it. Unfortunately, all you’ve got so far is a list, if you’re lucky, of names that you think might work.
It’s time to get acquainted.
There are a lot of ways to get to know your characters. None of them work for everybody, because writers (and characters) are persnickety like that. But there’s a chance that one of them may work for you.
Some writers fill out detailed character questionnaires for all their characters. (There are lots of these available on the internet. Just google on “character questionnaire” and there you go.)
Some writers have their important characters write letters to them, or to each other, or keep a diary.
Some writers make musical playlists for their characters. Others scour the internet and other resources for visual references for their characters’ physical appearance, clothing, and home decor.
Some writers draw up astrological charts for their characters, or do tarot readings for them. (This approach, oddly enough, can work just fine even for writers who think that astrology and the tarot are pure hokum. It gives the writer a way to think about the characters in symbolic terms.)
As always, there isn’t a right way to do this. Whatever works, works.
We had breakfast for dinner tonight.
To be more precise, we had buttermilk pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, and scrapple for dinner tonight, and our established grammar and syntax of dining say that this is breakfast, even if eaten at 8 PM. And a meal that would be eminently satisfactory in its accustomed time slot becomes something even better — unexpected and even a little bit subversive — when consumed at a time of day normally reserved for roast meats and steamed vegetables, for soups and stir-fries and casseroles.
The same principle holds for writing. Put a character into a setting that’s out of sync with his or her normal environment, and you add interest. Move an event out of its traditional or expected place in the storyline, and you generate suspense — if the author has played fast and loose with one set of expectations, all of the others are fair games as well, and anything can happen.
It’s not always necessary to invent new things. A lot of the time, you can do just as well simply by putting familiar things in unexpected places.
Subtle characterization is a wonderful thing. Unsubtle characterization . . . not so much. There are a number of tricks for quick-and-dirty characterization, useful mainly in those forms and media where screen time or word count is tightly limited and strictly enforced; one of the down sides to becoming a writer is that one also becomes entirely too quick for comfort at spotting these tricks in action.
Possibly the most famous of these tricks is the old Hollywood advice for writers of westerns: When your villain comes to town, have him get off the stagecoach and kick the nearest dog.
A bit more subtle — but still not much — is characterization by significant accessory. I read a mystery novel once where the author tipped the readers off that they weren’t supposed to like a particular character by noting with disapproval that he owned a leather couch. (I gave up on that mystery series not long after, when I started noticing that the author appeared to feel more moral concern for crimes against animals than for crimes against people.)
Then you get characterization by opinion, which results in the sort of book where all the good characters share the writer’s political (or other) opinions, and win all the arguments, and all the bad characters espouse the completely wrongheaded opinions of the other side, and generally not only lose the arguments, but meet bad ends. There was, for example, one well-known mystery writer (now deceased) whose villains I could almost always identify before the final reveal, simply by noting which character in the story had committed the most egregious offenses against feminism. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s an entire subgenre of science fiction in which staunch (and usually gun-toting) conservative protagonists have to save the world from the bumbling mistakes, or even the downright treachery, of woolly-headed or hypocritical liberals.
None of these tricks are of their nature inherently bad. They’re bad because they’re exaggerated and obtrusive versions of techniques which, when done with a delicate hand, use telling details of setting and behavior to illuminate the truth. As so often in writing (and art in general), the thing that matters isn’t what you do, but how you do it.
This isn’t the only way, but it’s a good one.
First, you give your main character something to want.
Next (this bit of insight courtesy of Elizabeth Bear), you figure out what it is that your main character actually needs.
Then you build your plot on the tension between the two.
(As opposed to Marty, Gary, Sebastian, or Tom-Dick-or-Harry Sue.)
Well . . .
To begin with, Mary Sue was first identified in the wild in her female form, and therefore her name provides an umbrella term for the whole category. If a reader says of a male character, “He’s just another damned Mary Sue,” a listener familiar with the terminology will have no trouble figuring out exactly what the problem with that character is.
In addition, fanfic, where the term originated, was historically (and still remains) heavily though not exclusively a female activity. It’s one of the few areas of endeavor that I know of where the default pronoun is in fact “she.” The Mary Sues that show up in fanfic are more likely to be female on that account.
Finally, male characters in popular fiction are more or less expected to be larger than life; nothing cultural is transgressed against when that happens. On the other hand, watch out for those sensitive, quiet, intellectual male characters, especially those of artistic bent. When looked at carefully, they often bear an uncanny resemblance to, if not the author, at least the author’s much nicer second cousin.
One of the hardest things to do with first-person narration (apart from the problem of how to tell the reader about important things that happen where the POV character can’t see them) is describing the narrator’s appearance. With third person, it’s relatively easy — you can slip in a detail here and a detail there as the opportunity arises, or you can say the heck with subtlety and provide a couple of descriptive sentences about the character shortly after he or she is introduced. But with first person, you’re not just following the character around and eavesdropping on their thoughts when it’s convenient. You’re inside their head all the time . . . and most people, unless they’re either really vain or really insecure, don’t spend that much time thinking about the fact that they have, say, brown hair and hazel eyes and a nose that’s just slightly crooked because they broke it falling off a seesaw back in second grade.
So what can you do?
Well, you can always not bother with physical description of your first person narrator. It’s surprising, really, how irrelevant brown hair and hazel eyes are to a lot of story lines. (For the story lines where they are relevant, the narrator will tell you about them — in fact, if he or she thinks that the crooked nose and the unexceptional hair and eye color are why they are still tragically without a date for the senior prom, they are probably not going to shut up about it.)
But what you don’t do (and don’t do it with third person narrators, either) is have your first-person narrator look at themselves in a mirror and describe what they’re seeing. And for “mirror” read also lake, pond, mud puddle, silver bowl, shop window, the eyes of the beloved, or any other reflective surface. Because that has been done.
I don’t like novels or short stories where the author deliberately withholds stuff from the reader.
I’m not talking about mysteries, where part of the fun is in the puzzle and in the timing of the revelations; also, part of the thematic point of most mystery novels — even more than questions of innocence and guilt and justice — is the revelation of truth. I’m talking about stories where there is something significant about one of the characters, or about some aspect of the general milieu of the story, or about the resolution, that the author clearly knows but doesn’t choose to tell, instead toying with the reveal like a fan dancer in the burlesque.
Stories where the gender of the main character or first person narrator is kept hidden — especially if it’s revealed, gotcha!-fashion, at the end — are a particular irritant as far as I’m concerned. This, I will admit, is mostly a matter of personal taste, since I have known discriminating readers for whom such stories were like catnip to a Siamese. And it’s not even an absolute thing with me; I’m quite fond of the mystery novels of the late Sarah Caudwell, who never did reveal the gender of their first-person narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar. (I always pictured Professor Tamar as looking rather like an anthropomorphic sheep as drawn by Sir John Tenniel for a missing scene from Alice in Wonderland . . . in the absence of data, the human mind does strange things.) But Caudwell is a case of good writing plus good story trumping almost everything else; but a story that isn’t top-notch in both those areas is going to lose me before it goes very far.
Almost as irritating, where I’m concerned, are stories where the resolution is left open, in “The Lady or the Tiger” fashion, especially when the story seems to be offering the reader a deliberate ambiguity in order to establish some sort of literary street cred. Again, some people find endings like that to be right down their alley; I’m just not one of them. Instead, such endings make me cranky and resentful, because I always suspect in my heart that the author knows the true ending and is deliberately holding out on me — I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t imagine not knowing the true ending of something I’ve written.
The moral of the story, if there is one: Don’t ever be accidentally ambiguous. If you’re going to do it, do it on purpose, in the full awareness that you’re probably going to lose some of your audience that way, and in the firm belief that whatever you’re trying to do or say with your story is worth the risk.
The story is never about the middle kid. The eldest gets to be the heir, or sometimes the lost heir, or occasionally the bully or the man in charge or the villainous oppressor (or the mimetic-realism equivalents of the above.) The youngest is the bold one who goes out into the world to find his fortune, or the virtuous and kindly one who wins while the older siblings are undone by their own unpleasantness, or sometimes the mysteriously adopted foundling or the one with special powers.
But nobody ever tells a story about the middle kid.
This is a law of storytelling that could, under the right circumstances, be profitably broken. But it would take work. A novel of mimetic realism would want to make itself into a family problem novel about the angst and trials of being a middle kid; a fantasy novel would want to deliberately subvert the archetype. Novels in other genres would want to handle the problem by thrusting the protagonist’s family so far into the background that he might as well have sprung fully-formed from the brow of the CIA, or the USMC, or the NYPD, or the faculty of Harvard Law.
The last-named case moves us over into “action heroes don’t have families” territory — which is a profoundly unrealistic motif. But nobody wants to think about the noir-story LA private eye with his trench coat and his fedora and his world-weary outlook going back home to Toledo, Ohio, for Thanksgiving, where he spends a long weekend not as the owner and sole operative of AAA Investigations Incorporated, but as Joey the middle kid who gets ribbed by his siblings for showing up looking like a poser on TV and whose mother wants to know if he’s met any nice girls yet out there in California. After four days of this, murder and palm trees and brutal cops and corrupt city officials start looking really good.
Writing an ordinary family with no more than the normal amount of inter-sibling and parent-child conflict can be hard work. It’s no wonder, really, that so many writers resort to making their protagonists orphans, or to giving them dysfunctional families that they don’t talk to any more. But it does leave a lot of open territory out there, just waiting to be explored.
While you’re stocking your plot with characters (or, if you work the other way around, while you’re assembling the cast of characters who will generate your plot), there are some types you want to steer clear of because they will lose reader sympathy — not just for themselves, but for any characters who happen to be standing too close to them.
One is The Annoyingly Perfect Character. This character is good at everything, and is always on the right side of any issue — no matter what the normal side may be for his time and place. Dogs always like him. He can drive a stick shift without ever stalling at a busy intersection. He can cook an intimate dinner for two and not have the kitchen stacked full of unwashed pots and pans at the end of the evening. If the character is female, she can do all of these things and run a Fortune 500 company without ever chipping her fingernail polish.
Another is The Character Who Wins All the Arguments. This usually happens because he or she is also The Character Who Agrees With The Author. Readers get annoyed by this one in a hurry, especially when they start thinking that the author is deliberately setting the character up with debate partners who aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. (Yes, Robert A. Heinlein, I’m looking at you.) If you’re going to be writing a debate, remember that even the wrong side is likely to have one or two good arguments going for them — be fair, and let them have those two measly points before your highly principled hero crushes them under the weight of a dozen stronger ones.
And a third is The Character Who Can’t Get a Break. This is the guy (or gal) for whom the line “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all” might have been written. If he has a job, he will lose it. If he gets a job, it will be in a sweatshop, or a soul-destroying cubicle farm, or a seething office morass of backstabbing and bureaucratic corruption. His significant other will cheat on him; or, if faithful, will contract a lingering and expensive malady that will cause him to turn to a life of incompetent crime in order to afford the treatments. He will leave his only umbrella on the bus. The reader will begin to suspect that the author hates this character, and will secretly despise the character for putting up with such unfair treatment.
Don’t write these characters. Your readers will be grateful for it.
Readers get disgruntled when they feel like they’ve put more effort into reading your book than they got pleasure out of it.
(It’s always important to bear in mind, when you’re thinking about this, that there are all sorts of readers deriving all sorts of pleasure from what they read, and you have to be able to distinguish between genuinely disgruntled members of your own audience and readers who are disgruntled because your book wasn’t written for them. The latter aren’t your problem, no matter how much they may sound like it sometimes; the former are your problem, because you’ve failed them somehow — and while you probably can’t fix it in the book they’re unhappy about, you can try to do better in the next one.)
Anyway. A common source of the more-effort-than-pleasure problem is unsatisfying characters. The need for satisfying characters sometimes gets mistranslated as a demand for likeable characters, or for admirable ones (the phrase “positive role model” comes into play a lot here), or for ones with which the reader can identify. In fact, the reader will happily follow along after a character who is none of these things — an unlikeable scoundrel who has little or nothing in common with the reader — so long as that character is interesting. An interesting villain will hold the reader’s attention better than a boring hero, any day of the week.
How do you make a character interesting? That’s a bigger problem than a single post can handle, but here’s one idea for a start: give your character important things to do, and have him or her actually do them. A proactive character is an object in motion, and objects in motion draw interest.