Friday, February 18, 2011

You Bring Out The So-So in Me

There’s a cartoon in this week’s paper that gave me a chuckle. A man and woman, obviously on a date, are sitting at a table bored with each other. The woman says to the man, “You bring out the so-so in me.”

Whoa. It got me thinking, am I bringing out the so-so in my characters? (Not to be confused with bringing out the so-and-so, which could be very entertaining and worthy of its own blog post.)

Character development is one of those areas that is paradoxically very simple and very complex. Some of us have characters who spring forth fully-formed: living, breathing, talking, characters who hijack the story and tell us how to write it. And many of us have characters who are closed, private, giving very little insight to their motives. They sit back and smirk and watch us try to pick them apart.

For most of us, however, characters grow slowly and organically with the unfolding of the story. They’re like a friend we get to know as we spend time with them. Their foibles and noble deeds, their fears and their strengths reveal themselves in time.

We may come to really love our characters as if they’re real people (and indeed, they are, aren’t they?). We spend countless hours with them, placing them in the rich fabric of our imagination, moving them around the scenery and giving them words to speak and emotions to feel. It’s fascinating work and it’s fun, too.

The challenge for a writer is to make our “friends” as interesting to readers as they are to us. If you Google “character development” - as I’m sure most of us have at one time or another - you’ll find countless words of advice, a dizzying array of character questionnaires, check-lists, archetypes, and so forth, all with the reassurances that if you diligently fill-in-the-blanks you’ll have a character. Presto.

Simple, isn’t it? If I know the color of my character’s eyes, what his height and weight are, and how much body hair he has, what his favorite food is, where he went to school, and what his first girlfriend’s name was, I’ve created a memorable character, right?

If I concoct an elaborate backstory for him and figure out what makes him breath, what gives him life, will that make him real to readers? Is a laundry list of physical traits and a suitcase of memories enough to make him spring to life? These things are good to know. I’m not against creating a character profile, especially if knowing them makes you more comfortable. But will knowing these things make for a memorable character for readers?

One of the best bits of advice I read about character development came from Beth, a section leader at the Books and Writer’s Community Forum. She believes there are some very basic steps writers can take to ensure a memorable character, specifically, a character who is real, yet larger than life.

One of those steps is to make sure your character has a past and if possible, a past that influences the present. This is where backstory is important. All of us act and react to our situations in life according to what we’ve known and experienced before. Our characters should do the same.

Another step is to give your character a life off-stage. Give them something to do, make it appear to readers that they’ve got a full life. For instance, in my own story, I started a scene in which my main character arrives home from someplace and sits in his truck, listening to the rain on the roof and contemplating a few things. I never mention where he’s been, only that it’s late, raining and he’s reluctant to leave the truck. Where was he? Why was he out late? Doesn’t matter really, in the scheme of things. He has a life off-stage.

Memorable characters, much like memorable humans, are contradictory, inconsistent, surprising. If your character always acts in the same way, where’s the interest for the reader? Find ways to make your character surprising, give her some whimsy, some inconsistencies, something quirky to keep readers off-guard, amused, or surprised. Alternately, you can give a character depth by making them consider their contradictions, showing the struggle they may have with their inconsistencies.

Real characters feel things deeply. Don’t gloss over their emotions. Find out what your character feels and why, then find a way to reveal those deep-seated feelings to your readers. A word of caution, however, when it comes to emotions. Done badly and you’re bound to cross the line into melodrama.

This next one I love: real characters have secrets. How many of us have tried to wheedle a secret from someone? It’s annoying beyond belief to be left out of the loop, isn’t it? Do the same with your readers - leave them out of the loop, let them dig, wheedle, and obsess over the secret your character has.

And finally, our characters do things we only dream of doing. Whatever that is - could be something small, like baking bread, or something huge like piloting an inter-galactic space pod. It’s our dreams that keep us moving forward.

No matter what kind of character you’re creating: protagonist, antagonist, side-kick, male, female, alien-werewolf-vampire-shapeshifter, give them a life off-stage, dreams, secrets, a history, deep feelings and inconsistencies. They'll much closer to becoming larger-than-life and completely real for your readers.


  1. So true! I've read stories where characters are given an elaborite physical description, yet if their appearance was stripped away, they'd be a hollow shell. Personality is important.

  2. I loooove reading about character development, so this post was porn to me (in fact it's mostly what I blog about. Characters, that is -- not porn :P). I agree that well-rounded characters will not always be predictable (and yet their limits should not be finite -- how often do we get annoyed at illogical character actions?) and that they need their own little habits. My current heroine has to read spa menus online to relax enough to go to sleep.

    I think the whole "past influencing the present" trope is relied upon a bit too heavily. Of course we should use it, but we need to combine it with all the other factors you've run through, too. Otherwise the whole "they've been hurt in the past and now they are cautious" parade a) gets old quickly and b) means very little, because we struggle to care.

  3. Heather - yeah, personality is more important than looks. I've read books where the characters are never described physically, yet they're memorable.

  4. Thanks for sharing these Susan! Gosh, I'd really like to know what Nathan's doing in that truck.
    More to the point though, I like the idea of secrets. Hmm... I wonder what Rosa could hide from Baha?

  5. Susan, wow, I've never really thought about giving my characters a life off-stage. Brilliant, thanks for the insight! :D (I must admit, I love building character's back stories and figuring out how they connect to their current personalities.)

  6. Hi Deniz,

    Nathan in the truck is actually posted in an X someplace. Couldn't tell you where, though. :P

    Oh do give Rosa a secret. Give her some mystery that intrigues Baha. He'd love it.

  7. Lucy, I agree characters should not act illogically. It's a sure sign of an author who doesn't know her own character or who has written herself into a corner. But acting in a contradictory or surprising way can still be logical for the character. One of my favorite characters - Indiana Jones - does just that when confronted with a huge, sword-wielding villain. So far, we've seen Indiana use his whip to good effect and we expect he'll do it here. Instead, he tiredly takes out his pistol, calmly shoots the man and walks away. Inconsistent, surprising, contradictory. But not illogical. He wears a side-arm, ergo, he must use it at times.

    I SO agree with you about the "past influencing the present" as a trope and that writers need to use it sparingly and in combination with other factors. But, OTH, it's a trope because it's... well... true. The School of Hard Knocks usually dictates how we'll behave in future situations. I think it stops being a trope when the character becomes real flesh and blood and when used truthfully for that character (that's when showing deep emotions, secrets, off-stage life and such become important.

    Good points! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Hi Madeline - glad you found something useful! I love backstory too. (Probably not as much as Claire, my fellow blogger here, who has written tens of thousands of words of backstory. If you look up "backstory" in the dictionary, there's a photo of Claire.) :P


  9. Giggle, Susan! Yep all, I've written so much backstory that it became a separate novel. Not kidding.

    Great post, by the way. I think the everyday mysteries, the secrets or the untold, are one of the things that makes Nathan so irresistible to so many. We want to unravel him, but he doesn't make it easy. And so we'll keep reading, because we kinda hope that by the end of the story, he'll open up and let us all the way in, and then we can all marry him and have his babies.


  10. Yes, that's it. That's what we all want.

    I'm still thinking of Rosa having secrets. Baha holds back from her, oddly enough, but she tells him a lot. Wonder what she'd keep hidden?

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Hiya, buddy crusader gals! I'm making the rounds today and checking out your blog. Nice to meet you, and Happy Friday! :)

    (sorry about the delete, heh-heh)

    Artzicarol Ramblings

  13. This is a wonderful post. I like the idea of giving dimension to the characters and making things a little more complex.

  14. Hi again Deniz! Well, maybe Baha's secret is enough. Giving a secret to a character is only one suggestion for rounding her out and giving her depth. You can use other methods to deepen Rosa's character. :)

  15. Hi Carol! Nice to see you here, so glad you stopped by. Happy weekend!

  16. Thank you Regina. So glad you found it useful. I love complex characters - the ones you peel like an onion.

  17. Claire & Deniz: LOL! You've done it now. The tips of Nathan's ears turned pink and he fled the scene. (I think he remembers a certain pajama party and wants to avoid any more tragic endings for marsupials.) snicker.

  18. Multi-dimensional characters are much more endearing to me.

    Fellow crusader - just stopping by!

  19. Multi-dimensional....yeah, absolutely. Regardless of what a character looks like, I like their personality better. That's the only way I'll feel like I know them. . .the only way I'll want to root for them.

    Fellow crusader popping by to say hi. We're in group #18 together! Have a great weekend.

  20. I love the post's title :D

    And yes, of course, characters need to be 3D. And of course it's easier said than done. Making a list of what the characters want, desire, fear, love works well for me. Something to motivate their actions :

    Fellow crusader here too! Nice to meet you! :)

  21. Hi Susan, Fantastic post. A writer could follow it and come up with a fully developed, complex character. I'm one of your crusader group mates stopping in to say hi and read all the wonderful posts you guys write.

  22. I just wanted to say 'Hey' to a fellow Crusader! I saw we were both in the Historical Fiction group and I thought I'd drop by and take a look at what you've got going on over here. Happy Crusading!

  23. Hello Fellow Crusaders! It's so nice to have you stop by!

    @ Alison: True multidimensional characters are a joy to find, aren't they? I love it even more when I create one. :P

    @ E.C. - No matter how an author describes the physical appearance of her characters, I tend to picture them my own way anyway. For me, less is better.

    @ Marieke: Oh, yeah, making a list like that is very helpful. I'm not opposed to lists of any kind so long as the author can translate them into a 3D character.

    @ Charlotte: Thank you! I can't take credit for the original list, but the thoughts are all mine. :)

    @ Mary: Hi and thanks for dropping by.

  24. You're so right. I love learning about my characters. I love their secrets and intensity. My favorite part of books are not the huge plot twists and the adventures and all that, but the characters behind them and who they are and how they feel. It's important stuff.

  25. Gina - absolutely! If I don't care about the character, I don't really care about the plot twists or the story at all. It's true though, that there are authors who can tell a very good story with a poorly defined character, using just the strength of the plot to get by.

  26. I'm pretty sure if there's one thing I don't have to worry about with my stories, it's my characters' depth ;) But I need to worry about a lot else. :P