Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Focus on Characters?

We talk a lot about how to create good characters, and I plan to spend a few blogs focused on the subject, but it raises a question that may be lurking in the minds of new writers. Why are characters so important?

I believe that characters are the main reason people read fiction. Sure, plots are important, setting is valuable, and it’s nice to have something to say, but fiction is about the characters. Fiction is gossip about people whose feelings we don’t have to worry about hurting, since we made them up.

I have heard it said that the difference between literary and genre fiction is that genre fiction is about the plot and literary fiction is about characters. As a genre writer I feel that literary fiction is about characters and their feelings only, while genre writers have to be able to write great characters AND have them actually DO something. Whether or not you agree with me, just accept that for any kind of fiction, your story won’t work unless it is carried by full, well delineated characters.

So what makes good characters?

Every character has a personality all his or her own. The final indication of how good a character you’ve created is simply how fully the reader feels he knows that personality, and how strongly the reader reacts to the character emotionally. Speaking generally, I believe that good characters have four important markers.

1. They are people we recognize. You know it’s a good character when you say, “Hey, I know a guy just like that.” You might not be personally acquainted with any 19th century business owners, but we all know an Ebenezer Scrooge, don’t we? Is he a stereotype? Well yes, he is now.

Are stereotypes bad? Only if that’s as far as you take the character. Heck, in real life everyone is a stereotype when we first meet them. We like to slot people when we first encounter them, so let’s allow our readers to do the same thing when they first meet our characters.

Consider Scrooge. At the beginning of the story, no one could like him. He is selfish, arrogant, greedy and mean. But as we learn more about his reasons for being who he is we begin to feel compassion for him. So as an author it’s okay to start with a stereotype as long as you go on to show the reasons for his or her behavior.

2. They are people we can identify with. Or, with whom we can identify for the grammarians among you – although this rule about ending sentences with a preposition is a foolish anachronism up with which I will not put.

But I digress. Good characters do thing that you or I might do if we were ever in their extraordinary circumstances. When Sydney Carton faces the guillotine in Darnay’s place at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, the act gives his whole life (and the whole book) meaning. We all want to believe that in that spot we’d do exactly the same thing. Likewise, none of us wants to literally tilt at windmills, but don’t we all identify with Don Quixote’s idealized view of life?

3. They are people we can predict. That comes from creating consistent characters. And that comes from thinking your people through. How do you get to know your characters that well? A good exercise for this is to write your character into a number of different situations, just to see what he or she will do. If you’ve developed them well, they may surprise you. But then you’ll know how they’ll behave in your book or story.

4. They are people who surprise us. That may at first seem contradictory, but people surprise us in life all the time. One reason is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Our relationships and our environment shape us. My detective, Hannibal Jones, is of mixed heritage, although in our society such people are generally regarded as Black. I think I’ve added depth to the character by showing my readers how differently he behaves and speaks among his friends than he does in the mostly white business world of Washington. His behavior may surprise you in some circumstances, yet it’s completely consistent. Consider yourself as a fictional character. Consider how your parents might be surprised if they saw you with your drinking buddies, or how your poker partners might be surprised if they met you in church. Then you can extend that to consider yourself in extraordinary circumstances.

You may consider yourself a nonviolent person, but if a terrorist was threatening your mother’s life and all you had at hand was your drinking glass, would you break it and try to tear his throat out with the jagged glass? If you answered yes, consider this: does she know that? You might well surprise her in that situation.

We all have split personalities and as long as you can explain your character’s motivations, it’s okay for them to occasionally surprise your readers. If the Christmas Carol had been told in a different order, Scrooge’s actions on Christmas Day could have been as surprising to the reader as they were to the other characters.

By now you’ve gathered that authors should know a good deal about their characters. I will go farther and say that you should know everything about your characters. In fact, you should know far more than you tell the reader about characters. You should know their history, their motives, their loves and hates, what they’re proud of and what they’re ashamed of. That’s how they get to be consistent.

In my writing class I offer my students a handout as one way to approach building characters. It is an inventory of personal traits through which you can learn all the important things about a character. This list of traits and details can be used as a fill-in-the-blank character starter. Each of those traits tells a bit more about your character. You can find an example of one such character inventory on line at

If writers remain consistent with all of the character traits they choose they will have a great character who readers will take to their hearts because they will feel as if they really know the person they're reading about.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think your assessment of literary vs genre fiction is most accurate! Kinda like the difference between a really good movie everyone enjoys and the high-brow, boring drama that wins all the awards for its 'depth.'

L. Diane Wolfe

Austin S. Camacho said...

thanks, Diand! I hope we can redefine "Good" writing to include great mystery, thriller, and other popular genres.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Excellent article, Austin. I never thought about each of us having a split personality, but it's true. We're different with each person we happen to be with.


Mark Troy said...

Great article, Austin. I agree we read to learn about the characters, but I find it hard to separate character from plot. To me, they are two sides of the same coin. Dennis Lehane once said that he reads and writes to learn about these characters and the plot is the way he learns about them.

Earl Staggs said...

Excellent breakdown of character development, Austin. It's already in my keeper file.