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Character Matters

The creation and development of characters within a novel or short story is critical to the success of that story, but it can be challenging for the author. Too many authors depend on PC-imposed stereotypes or cartoon characters to populate their stories, dangling them like marionettes in the midst of the action. Characters interacting with their environment and with each other make the story, drive the action, and lead to logical conclusions, regardless of how illogical the character may seem. The entire Seinfeld empire was built solely on the interaction of three characters and their peripheral relationships outside the trio; this was considered one of the most entertaining programs ever developed for television. Creating and building effective characters is one of the most important parts of writing any story.

They’re All Over

One aspect of life that can make character creation effortless is that unless you’ve spent the past five years living in a cave with nothing but sand fleas for companionship, characters are all around you. Most writers, before they become Writers (published and able to live off of royalties and licensing agreements), have to hold a job or series of jobs. This intolerable situation can provide a wealth of opportunity from the standpoint of character creation. Getting to know co-workers and even buddying up to the boss opens the door to creating characters that have specific personalities, behaviors and values, and a history that makes the total package seem coherent. For example, on one of my most hideous job assignments, my coworkers consisted of a supervisor who grew up in Minnesota, loved to ride horses, was a volleyball fanatic, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and couldn’t boil an egg without nearly burning down the kitchen. Another was a gay man who had studied psychology and theology in a Christian academy, then chose to come out of the closet, dress like a ‘50s beatnik and devote his life to building and programming computers. A third was a middle-aged man with Asperger’s Syndrome who had a private conversation running constantly in his head that at times, everyone was privy to, and was a savant when it came to finding any place imaginable in the United States because he was obsessed with reading Rand McNally’s road maps. A writer would be hard-pressed to invent people like these. Every job, every customer and every interaction is a potential goldmine for the writer, if only they would take the time to be curious, open and friendly enough to allow these personalities to emerge.

Illogical Logic

One aspect of character creation that often creates stumbling blocks is that real people behave in a manner that is logical to them, and consistent with their attitudes and values. Even insane people behave with a certain amount of logic; criminal profilers study the results, and infer the attitudes and behaviors from them. All too often, writers try to make the character behave according to the way in which they want the story to end, rather than writing events leading up to the end in a way that allows the character to behave naturally. These forced endings weaken otherwise good stories.

Genres such as adventure-romance lend themselves to this kind of forcing, because the protagonists are written to be larger than life, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Within the context of the story, the hero can show a few flaws and crotchets, and the heroine can go through an evolution that allows her to “step up to the plate” in grand style in the end, even though it may be a leap of faith for her to do it. Fundamentally, people don’t change, but they can grow.

Keep It Clean


I recently read a novel that had several plot lines running simultaneously, all of them revolving around two main characters. The novel’s construction was interesting, but the cast of characters was so cluttered that the various plot lines and twists became difficult to follow. Similarly, one novice writer spent a considerable amount of time on the peripheral characters in her story. Her efforts resulted in inane dialogue and a slow-paced story, because the reader was more involved in trying to discover the relevance of the character to the action than they were following the plot. A cluttered playing field takes away from the essence of the story, so keep things clean, and make certain that the characters you’ve introduced actually matter to plot and story development.

A story, like a business, is only as good as its people. Put effort into creating and developing your characters, like their thoughts and behavior to concrete consequences, and your people will work overtime to make your story recognized as excellent.

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