The literary world is full of them. Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O’Hara, Captain Ahab, Anita Blake, Robert Langdon, Stephanie Plum, Miles Vorkosigan, the list goes on and on. What is it that makes them great? Any number of things depending on who you ask. In my opinion, it is that we can define what it is about those characters that help us define the greatness. In the writing world I call it clear characterization. In the reading world I call it empathy.
Clarity in characterization for me means that I understand the character’s goal, why it’s important and what conflicts come up in the attainment of that goal. Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Simple. Deb Dixon wrote a whole book on this that clarified why these elements must be present to help the reader empathize with a character.
When I was just a reader, devouring books at every opportunity was mostly what I was interested in. So many times, I’d wander into the stacks of the library, pick a book at random and start reading. The librarians all knew me. I’d be sitting on the floor just about anytime I wasn’t supposed to be somewhere else, and often times when I was, reading. They weren’t all classics. They weren’t all fiction. I can get lost in a non-fiction book just as easily if I can understand the subject. (I read a 400 page biography last Wednesday for an example. Yes, all of it start to finish.) I could fall in love with a character or hate them based on what was written on the page.
When I tried to write my first story I didn’t know anything about writing, I just wanted to write about characters that did things. The things they tried, did, experienced, failed, worried about or just plain didn’t do should make you feel. Anger, sadness, fear, happiness, hope, joy. It doesn’t matter what the emotion was, just that it was felt. That, in my opinion, is what makes great characters. Little did I know I was starting my journey in writing emulating Characterization and Plot.
Are your characters great? Write on.
Sometimes there is someone you know who you just cannot believe is that shallow. Does this person think about anything? Stop talking about nothing long enough to grow? Have any redeeming quality whatsoever? Now the biggie: is this your character?
Sometimes in the rush to get the words down on the page you might not have a clear idea of who this character is. Do you flesh out the details as you go or just move your paper person around in your world? This is where I run into problems, usually in my prewriting. Why do I prewrite? Because this is where I get to know my characters, my plot, the arcs, the details, all the juicy stuff that I think needs to be in the story. This creation part is where I get to have fun. I torture my characters. I make bad things happen. Then I’m mean and make them cope with it, react to it, or just plain try and run away. But I also have to flesh out that character more for both myself and the reader so that the character, (and incidentally their actions,) is believable. How frustrated have you become when you come across a character in a story that does something so completely out of character you put the book down? Come on, we’ve all done it. In this case the paper person may have been fully formed in the author’s mind, but it didn’t translate to the story. Or maybe, (the horror,) the author didn’t know the character and blithely wrote the scene without a blip.
Invest in your characters. Paper people are fine (sort of) for discovering things, generic secondary characters or just walk-ons. And when you run into them in real life make up a story about them or invent a reason for why he/she is that shallow. It’s a great writing exercise. Write on.