“Great characters are the key to great fiction. A high-octane plot is nothing without credible, larger-than-life, highly developed en-actors to make it meaningful.” – Donald Maass in “Writing the Breakout Novel”
“I do a basic outline and a basic character sketch of my main characters. I find it helpful to have an idea where I’m going, even if I diverge, which I often do. I like to really think about all my characters’ backstories and motivations. Even if they aren’t central to the plot, I need to understand who they are to bring them to life.” - S. J. Laidlaw in an interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Let’s say your muse has hauled you back into the 19th century. The day is cold. People are shopping, making their way home, thinking about what? You need to know what whether you tell your reader or not. A mother and a daughter, perhaps, are walking along a well-traveled street, heading home where they will find, perhaps, a burning house or a warm meal or a message from a friend.
You know their names, I’ll bet. Perhaps you wrote their names down on a sheet of paper and listed their ages, the color of their hair and eyes, whether they’re fat or thin or short or tall, and even a favorite song/book/meal/season. Is it time to write your story?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Some people—S. J. Laidlaw— for example, want to outline their plots and ponder their characters before they say, “Once upon a time.” Others—myself included—want to figure out where the story is going and who the characters are while writing the first draft.
Ponder First, Write Later, or Vice Versa
If you ponder before writing, you might call the little girl “Helen” and call her mother “Anne” and then start visualizing how Helen spends her day at school, with friends, and around the house; and then you’re thinking about Anne and whether she’s sewing, cooking, answering letters or trying out for a part in a play or writing about her recent trip to the Azores. None of that’s in the story about the burning house, warm meal or the message from a friend, but you need to know it.
If you discover your characters while writing, perhaps a colorful doll in a shop window will catch Helen’s eye and, while walking down the cold street, she’ll think about her doll house at home next to the window that looks out on a dull alley, something you didn’t know about until you wrote the words, and while Helen is thinking about the dolls in the house and how they might interact with the doll in the shop window, Anne is thinking about the shocking news story on page one of the morning paper about an arsonist. Well, that’s interesting.
Getting to Know You (your characters, that is)
Either way, your story won’t get memorable characters if all you do is tell their story. You need to know each of them like a lover, a mentor, a brother, a sister, a parent, a priest or a spouse. Now you’re getting somewhere, getting to the point where your characters fulfill some of the bullet points in Maass’ book such as “engrossing characters are out of the ordinary” and/or that larger-than-life characters “have conflicting sides and are conscious of self.”
Suffice it to say, memorable characters probably don’t spend their evenings watching “American Idol” or reality shows about cooking or buying a new house. They can, but only if it takes them from ordinary to out-of-the-ordinary like, say, learning that Hannibal Lecter watches “Chopped” on the Food Network, or that sweet little Helen looked into a tiny crystal ball in her doll house and saw an episode of “Survivor: Philippines” and thought tribal council was a real event in the future.
If you were to see me on a city street standing in front of a book store and thought, hmm, there’s a story in that, I might end up (in your mystery/thriller) throwing a brick through the window before stealing the money out of the cash register. Or, I might end up smiling at the crowd there before going inside to sign copies of my latest novel, er, Lust in the Poison Ivy. Either way, who I am before that story begins is part of my motivation, the choices I’ll make, the way I’ll feel while throwing the brick or autographing a book, and the way I interact with the other characters.
You’ll Never Tell All You Know
Perhaps your readers will never know for sure why I threw the brick, but you better know. Maybe they won’t know that Lust in the Poison Ivy is based, in part, on a bittersweet affair I once had in a patch of English Ivy years before most of my readers were born: then, when a red-haired girl approaches and I see her smile, you know she reminds me of somebody I knew long ago and that that’s why I say something special in her copy of my book.
Sooner or later, you finish your short story or novel. You’re ready to send it to a publisher. At this point, it’s late in the realm of story creation, and so I’m wondering if you’ll know what your characters were doing after you wrote the words “The End.” If you do, then the chances are good they’re really three dimensional and will move your readers to laughter, joy, horror, tears or adventure.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary the fantasy novels “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande,” and (coming soon) “The Seeker.”