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ASK THE EDITOR Letting Your Characters Go Where THEY Decide

by Susan Malone

October 2003

Great characters are easy to create, right? We have a perception that anyone can write a book (and many of our bestsellers unfortunately back this up, although that has more to do with the marketing push and positioning in the bookstore and a host of other factors, which make up another column). A fresh story is wonderful. Beautiful prose makes any read nice. But what separates the true writers from the hacks almost always falls into the realm of the folks on the page. Characters must have depth, be multilayered, many sided, quite distinguishable, interesting, sympathetic or not (but either done with deliberation), and on top of all that, believable. Piece of cake.

Of course, you know that isn't true. To really create the lady next door takes as much inspiration and perspiration as it does to draw up the leader of the western world. Perhaps more. 

Your character must be more than a history, name, and face. She's more than the roles she plays—Mom, CEO, volunteer, dog trainer, or perhaps all of the above.  He's more than his political affiliation, or his dreams. They're all more than mothers, fathers, siblings, children, grandparents, friends, etc. These are all important factors, but comprise merely laundry lists of character traits, which don't make up unforgettable folks. That list is a great place to begin, but then you, as the author, must get to know them thoroughly, and as you go. 

Your reader doesn't need this laundry list. He may not even find out until two-thirds of the way in that oh, by the way, the heroin had an abortion at twenty that haunts her to this day. Ah, that's a nice twist, late in the story. But what does have to happen is that this little tidbit has to fit with her character, from the get go, and when your reader learns it causes many pieces to fall into place. 

And you, yourself, may not have learned this until that point.  The best characters are those you think you know as you're writing along, when all of a sudden they take you across a ninety-degree turn.  "I didn't know he helped poison his father to ease the old man's suffering!"  Ever had that happen?  It's like a lightening bolt that sears your pages, infusing them with an energy that enriches, deepens, and causes you to rethink him entirely. And in the process, he comes full-bore to life on your pages. 

I once wrote an autobiography, and the biggest problem I had was with the people. Ironic, no?  But I found it very difficult to make them up when they were real. In my own mind they would soar down paths that really enriched them and really caused the story to fly, but not in ways they really were or where the story actually went. So I'd have to backtrack and stay true to the actuality, rather than my own creativity. 

For the record, it wasn't much fun. 

Because letting your characters go where THEY decide to is one of the greatest joys of writing. It causes the process to always be new, always be awe-inspiring, give you that catch-your-breath feeling of truly creating. 

One of the biggest traps most writers fall into is in trying to make too many characters matter. Whether you have ten characters or a hundred is fine. But you can only have a few, a handful at most, who are fully fleshed-out folks. Your Protagonist has to shoulder most of that load. But the immediate cast must be as multifaceted. The secondary cast—again, no matter how many—can come and go and although they must possess distinguishing characteristics, they're going to fade more to the back of the stage.

Narrow your primary cast.  Be hard about this.  You have a very limited amount of space in any novel (this pertains to much of nonfiction as well), and to fully create great characters, they must be few. Who's important?  Not the checker at the grocery store, who may very well cause some sort of catalyst for our hero. But the checker herself doesn't get a viewpoint. We don't care that she had a fight with her husband that morning, which made her cranky as hell. We only care THAT she's cranky as hell, and how that affects our guy going through the line.  You, as the author, need to know about her morning, but we, your readers, don't. Your reader is trusting you to reveal only those things that truly matter. The rest is wasted words. And worse, obscures and waters down the parts that DO matter. 

Okay, so you have to begin somewhere.  You've narrowed your important people down to a very few. You have your laundry list. I encourage my writers to keep this list handy, complete with as much history about the people as you know, when you know it, always adding to, then review it often and let those traits come out naturally. Another great tool I have my writers use is to write a short story about each of the major characters, where only that person is in it (even if he's not your Protagonist), about some significant event in his life, not to be included in this book. That's a wonderful method of getting to know each one, so that you can add what you learned about him as you go through the story.  Writing another of those halfway through deepens him further. And, a third one toward the end. Then, when you go through revisions, you can add those layers, that depth, and it comes out naturally in the story—rather than the author coming down and beating the reader on the head by heavy-handedly pointing out, "This man was molested as a child!  That's why he's such a bad guy!" 

We should have "gotten" that from the character's actions in the story.  Again, we may not have guessed that particular situation was at the root of his malevolence, but we should be close. And when it does come out (or is hinted about) later on, this must not be a surprise. The full impact may not hit us until late in the story, but again, all the pieces then must fit. 

Complicated work, this creating great characters. But then, we're all pretty complex ourselves, no?  As I finally learned in that autobiography I co-authored, even if people don't go in the direction my own creativity would take them, no one is one-sided.  The depth is there.Your job, as an author, is to find it and softly bring it to the fore for your reader to grasp. Then, said reader will always remember your book. And isn't that what we're reaching for?

About Susan Mary Malone


Author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; Five Keys for Understanding Men. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! She is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com . Reach her at www.maloneeditorial.com