Last week I wrote about a starter kit for developing characters: 10 areas than can lead to quick and easy character creation. This week I’m enhancing what we can do with that starter kit.
Eliminate orphaned characters
Get a big piece of paper. List major characters, leaving a lot of space among the names. Draw lines connecting the characters. If you’re familiar with the late Gabriele Lusser Rico’s Writing the Natural Way, you’ll recognize what we’re doing as clustering. What we’re looking for relates to jobs in the starter kit: not only why is this character in the book, but how characters connect to one another.
Pay particular attention to orphaned characters. Orphaned characters have only one job in the book. In the example above, Bob is an orphaned character. I need to either assign the role of Andrew’s boss to another character or find Bob more connections. He could side with Jon over Macy in their power struggle, or be Terry’s suitor, or both. Finding Bob at least two other jobs places him solidly in the story. Making those additional connections would also strengthen Terry’s and Jon’s roles, too.
Enter the character
Introduce the character in media res; that is, smack dab in the middle of doing something doing something with a high physical and/or emotional content.
One mistake writers make is to introduce a character in the middle of normal life, so that the reader gets to see what they were like before the book started. Big mistake. For why, and how to correct that misconception, I strongly recommend Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction.
Make each character stand out (or not)
Give each character unique ways of relating to the physical world. This includes their physical description, clothes, food, living spaces, possessions, and their relationship to each of these.
When a reader begins a book, she has no idea which characters are important, and which are there to smooth the way into the story, but will never be seen again. She pays the same amount of attention to every character until she figures out how who is important and who isn’t. Here are some things that authors do to help a reader find her way.
Background characters who make the first chapters flow — the doorman who opens the heroine’s car door or the dry cleaner who ruined her best dress can be used to set events in motion, but should be mentioned only in passing. The more details the reader learns — that the dry cleaner is named Moe, he’s fifty-five years old, he lives over the shop, and he speaks with a New York accent— the more the reader expects Moe to play a major part in the story.
A phrase can covers what’s needed to move the story along. “On Tuesday, the dry cleaner ruined my best dress. I was so upset I had three mocha lattes in a row. If I hadn’t been over-caffeinated when City Alderman Terrance O’Donnell showed up without an appointment, things might have been different.” Now the focus is on what the character’s reaction was to the ruined dress, and how that dress sets the story in motion.
The Power of Three
A character doesn’t usually gel with a reader until they have been seen at least three times, in three different roles or relationships. It’s important to gel all major characters with the reader as soon as possible. There is no hard rule about this, but as a general guideline, all of the major characters should be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind by the end of chapter three. The only exception is the detective(s); it’s hard to have him or her show up before the first body is discovered. But then, there are endless discussions about needing a body by the end of chapter three as well.
If there is a need to hold a character in reserve past the first three chapters, at least make a general reference to them. When the heroine says, “The guys who really piss me off are the ones in thousand-dollar suits, with the look-at-me attitudes,” the reader expects a man, a suit, and an attitude eventually to show up.
Place the Character in Context
This is a good place to go back and review the blog about the difference between context and backstory. Context is a big plus at the beginning of a book. Backstory isn’t.
The author contracts with the reader to provide an ah-ha moment where they recognize the character as someone they know in real life. ~Bouchercon 2003 panel
I hope to see you again on Thursday, March 20, for Level Thinking: Listening for Stories.
Next Tuesday, March 25, I’ll complete this four-part character series with a look at what makes a good villain.