Character Counts!

Writing Song of the Day: “Let it Be Me” by Ray LaMontagne

As a school counselor, I talk a lot about character. Respect, empathy, and citizenship are just a few traits I try to instill upon my students. However, as we all know as writers, character development is crucial when writing a story. If your characters are flat, then readers aren’t going to want to follow their journeys.

Both Quita and I try our best to add layers to our characters, yet we also have room for growth. That’s why I sat in on the Character 101 panel at the James River Writers Conference. Speakers included: Michelle Young-Stone (author, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors), Clifford Garstang (author, In an Uncharted Country), and Paul Whitlatch (assistant editor at Scribner, a Simon & Schuster imprint). Here are some highlights:

How Much Character Development is Needed Before the Story?
Ms. Young-Stone actually kept blogs for her two main characters in The Handbook… However, this book began as the female protagonist’s story, and the male voice came in around page 70. She was mad at him at first, but then realized that his story had to be told, too. Sometimes it’s helpful to start a story first, and then go back and create character profiles for each lead (and sometimes supporting characters, too).

What Strikes Editors about Characters?
Mr. Whitlatch believes in literary fiction, the more explosive the character, the better. However, in commercial fiction, editors will respond better to characters that remind them of ones in successful novels. He also notes that over-characterization can be detrimental and can pull away from the plot.
How Can You Write Appealing Bad Characters?
Mr. Garstang loves bad characters because he feels no one is perfect. Readers want to see these characters learn from their flaws. Writers should try to give bad characters some kind of redeeming quality, even if it’s something really minor (i.e., maybe villain has a soft spot for cats).

How to Write Characters Without Stereotypes?
Mr. Garstang likes to “pump up”stereotypes in the first draft and then scale them back on revisions. He really enjoys writing about characters completely different from him (such as the POVs of a middle-aged Black woman, or a gay teenager) because he feels that he shares similar emotions with these characters.

What are Common Mistakes in Characterization?
Mr. Whitatch has seen writers become so fixated on lead characters that it pulls away from the story. He advises writers to include smaller characters and details to create a whole world. On the flip side, in historical fiction, writers are so focused on the history that they never develop characters.

Mr. Garstang also edits a magazine, and sees many flat, one-dimensional characters. If you’re writing about a bad mother, make her more nuanced–give her moments aside from spewing negative comments to her children. Does she have a weight problem? Is she unhappy in her marriage?

Tips for New Writers
Ms. Young-Stone advises writers to not limit themselves. Don’t be afraid to show where characters come from, even if you edit this information out later. The more you know about a character’s background, the more developed this character will be.

Mr. Garstang creates a file and biography for each characters. In this file, he has a list of questions such as likes and dislikes, religious and political beliefs, and turn-ons and turn-offs. He starts writing first to get to know the characters and then creates these bios.

Mr. Whitlatch notices that new writers are reluctant to let bad things happen to their characters. Breathe–it’s okay! Our lives don’t go the way we plan in real life, so this should be reflected in fiction, as well.

Tons of helpful info! I’m curious, how do you all develop your characters? Do you create character worksheets? Journals? Blogs even? I’d like to pick up some new ideas. 🙂
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6 thoughts on “Character Counts!

  1. Great post! I always start a project by figuring out who my main characters are. I'll write pages and pages of backstory that I never intend to put in the final book. I have to get to know my characters first, let them tell me who they are and where they come from. After that, I can start messing with their lives and giving them a story, because I'll know them well enough to know how they'll react.

  2. This is a lot of good information! I like the point of bad characters. In the past, I've done character profiles. But sometimes I don't. Half of the time the character just speaks in my head. (I told my family that, and they thought I was very strange…lol).

  3. For my first book, I made my lead have the type of character that I would want to be but always fall shy of. I think I made her too perfect, so this post, as always, is super helpful.I started writing my second book and this time wrote an outline and even wrote a list of characters and their personalities. I have found that it is hard for me to write as a bad-ass chick because, frankly, I am not like that. So how does one write like a character they least associate with? I guess that's what separates the great writers from the mediocre ones. I'll work it out somehow – the glass is always full!

  4. AJ–I agree with you, I like to start writing my characters first before I make any kind of profile. In fact, for my first WIP, I didn't create profiles until around the 2nd or 3rd revision–but it was SOO helpful. :)Racquel–my characters speak to me, too. My family gives me AND Quita strange looks all the time. :)Melanie–I understand what you mean. In the past, I used to write a lot from the white, male POV–and I know NOTHING about this perspective. However, I agree with Cliff Garstang–even though we come from different backgrounds, we all have similar emotions. If someone hurts our feelings, we all are on some kind of spectrum of pain. A "bad ass" chick may lash out, but a more shyer female lead may keep her hurt feelings to herself.

  5. It IS very hard to let bad things happen to your characters, but in the end it makes for much better writing/reading!Great post! I really need to get to some of these conferences… 😉

  6. I LOVE appealing "bad" characters, and think they are an extremely important aspect of good literature! No one is completely evil– people are more complex than that. Stories that characterize villains with good and bad qualities are always my favorites. Great post!

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