Monday, October 8, 2012

All about Your Characters, Part I

Today I want to discuss possibly one of the most enjoyable and frustrating aspects of a novel, characters. These loveable—or delightfully despicable—personalities have the ability to make your book terrific, if you can harness their characteristics and use them to entertain the reader. They also have the dangerous ability to ruin stories, if you do not keep a careful eye out for potential pitfalls.

I’ve broken down my discussion into two segments. The first, which I’ll be discussing today, focuses on the common mistakes writers make concerning characters, and how to fix them. On Wednesday I’ll discuss positive character building, and how to wow your audiences through strong characters.

Unfortunately, Characters are another huge topic that I’m brave (stupid) enough to cover. In reality, there is much more discourse on characters than what I will be able to cover in these two posts. This being said, if you have a burning question concerning characters, please shoot me an email, and I’ll make sure to answer it in a future post.

Character No-No’s
Below are two common mistakes that writers run into when creating characters. As a word of warning or encouragement, most writers run into the following problems to varying degrees—especially during the first few drafts of their manuscript. It is simply very difficult to create strong and complex characters from nothing.

Weak Characters
Weak Characters are essentially characters that shun conflict and action, and—believe it or not—they may be lounging about in your manuscript, avoiding tension. These are goalless characters. They stumble through your world, running away from problems only to stumble into others. This type of character is neither believable—because conflict is not serendipitous—nor are they admired.

A character does not have to be scrawny or wimpy to be a weak character, and a scrawny or wimpy character is not necessarily weak. It all depends on how a character reacts to conflict. A wimpy character and a weak character are so often synonymous because a wimpy character will most often shun danger, conflict, and tension—essentially all the book’s promised action. And if they avoid conflict, your book is dead in the water.

Things will Happen for No Reason
If in your story your main character keeps stumbling upon disaster, this is a great indicator that you have yourself a weak character. Like I mentioned above, weak characters shun conflict. In the absence of conflict, you are forced to place your character into a position where the conflict is unavoidable—over and over again. Not only are these “coincidental” scenarios surprisingly difficult to think up, after enough of these forced scenarios, your readers will be unconvinced, and this is a very bad thing. An unconvincing story is an unsuccessful story. 

How Do I Make My Character Stronger?
Strong characters do not need to be exceedingly self-confident, nor do they need to prove their brute physical strength. Instead, creating a strong character means you create situations where a character must seek out some form of action.

You make your character stronger by giving them goals to pursue. For instance, say at the beginning of a book an evil wizard killed the mother of your main character, Juliette, and Juliette swears retribution. The rest of the story should revolve around Juliette actively searching for the wizard. Creating goal-oriented main characters will not only increase the action of your story, it will eradicate these “accidental” scenes and replace them with high-tension scenes full of character conflict. It will also conveniently answer why things are happening in your book—remember from our earlier discussion that readers must understand a character’s thoughts and actions.

Even if you have wimpy characters, they can become strong characters by making them goal-oriented. For instance, maybe your main character is Thomas, a wimpy nerd working in a science lab. At the beginning of the story, he overhears two scientists discussing the release of a pathogen that will wipe out a portion of the population. If this is the main conflict, then Thomas, regardless of his wimpy or nerdy personality, must actively prevent the pathogen from being released. This means he cannot not sit in his room and hide; he must be using each page of the book to work his way towards stopping the pathogen’s release.

The problem with a wimp is that pursuing a plot-driven goal promotes character growth, so the wimpy character must end the book being a little less wimpy. This is why it is in general so difficult to have weak characters—because they end up not being weak after all. So while I will not tell you that you cannot write about a wimpy character, it will be much a more difficult task.

In addition, no reader minds reading about a character that is better in some way(s) than himself/herself—we live vicariously through the lock pickers and the sultry spies. However, writing about a wimp can lead to reader alienation. We’ve all been self conscious or weak at some point, and we go to books to escape this.  So when a character is paralyzed into inaction by problems that readers already know too much about from the real world, reader frustration can easily triumph over empathy. Make fiction better than reality and let your characters achieve what we cannot—your story will benefit from it.

Too Many Characters
The other highly common problem I see concerning characters is the sheer quantity of them. I’ll be the first to say that it is difficult to thin out the number of characters from a book. In real life we know many people by name, and when writing, it is tempting to give a personality and backstory to every individual the character comes across.

However, because a book contains only a finite amount of text, there is not enough space to develop the personalities of twenty separate characters. What happens instead is that many characters are introduced and then subsequently forgotten, perhaps not mentioned for the next twenty thousand words—if they’re mentioned again at all.

The reader develops no personal connection with these characters because the characters themselves are not developed enough to root (or boo) for. 

Why is it Bad to have too Many Characters?
If the reader does not have any emotional investment in a character, then what happens to them becomes irrelevant to the reader. This can be really bad for the twists and turns of your plot. Say one of your fifteen characters is killed off. My initial response is, “Aw, that’s a bummer. At least that’s one less person to keep track of.” This is bad. Ideally, you want your reader weeping or ecstatic if it’s the antagonist who is defeated. These characters should ideally be real. However, if you have too many characters and thus do not adequately develop your characters, the reader may not be nearly as devastated as they otherwise could be.

How Do I Get Rid of Characters? They’re All Important!
Surprisingly, they are not all important. In fact, I’m guessing that at least one character could be removed from your manuscript. While some minor characters are so unnecessary that completely eradicating them is the best course of action, most of the time this much too extreme. Instead, try condensing two characters into a single character. Simply replacing the removed character’s name with the newly condensed character might fix the majority of your problem. While there will likely be tweaking needed throughout the rest of your novel, astonishingly, this actually works. More than that, it makes your story better.

Why? People are complex; no one is wholly good, or evil, or funny, or brutish. So allowing your characters have a couple of personality traits rather than just one will actually make them more appealing. The caveat is that too many character traits in less developed characters may serve to confuse the reader (Again, remember that from our prior discussion, readers love explanations for even the most mundane actions. Characters who have too many personality traits run the risk of no longer making logical sense.).

A great exercise for all writers is to write down a list of your characters. Next to each name write two of their most prevalent personality traits. Now cross off the character of the least importance to your novel. For those with a list well over ten, try removing two or more. Now, attach the personality traits to the remaining character(s) that you believe is/are best suited. Repeat for each character that you removed.

In Conclusion, the two most common character-related problems I come across are weak characters and including too many characters in a story. There are easy fixes for both of these. Weak characters can be fixed by making them goal-driven. If you have too many characters, try combining or removing the less important ones. Chances are this will increase the reader’s emotional attachment to the remaining characters. 

Check out part two, in All about Your Characters, Part II.

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