Why are you writing? The chances are you want to create a ‘perfect’ characters. Worse – yes, worse – you may want to be one of your characters. Bad approach. I’ve seen that happen a lot while judging writing competitions and running writing workshops. I’ve even seen it happen in professionally published novels.
What is wrong with the author being in love with a character, or being one of them? For starters, characters like that can do no wrong, and this is seriously boring. Well, to everyone except the author, anyway. What do Dexter Morgan, Walter White and Sherlock all have in common? Apart from being guys, and being in television series, they get it wrong sometimes and get pushed to the limit. They are flawed, and they spend a lot of time cleaning up mistakes, yet they are still great characters.
Whether your characters are meant to be good or bad, they have to be interesting. If you love a character, you will want to protect them, give them lots of nice things,. Nothing will ever be a challenge, and the villains will be 2D and easily demolished.
How should an author feel about characters in general? I prefer my characters to be interesting whether I like them or not. Characters are generally not interesting unless they are flawed, or bad things happen to them – or both. Where would Arya be without Joffrey in Game of Thrones?
What about the other extreme?
Anyone who reads/watches Game of Thrones will know better than to get too attached to any character, but George R.R. Martin is a master of balance and most of the rest of us are not. Is it okay to gratuitously torture your characters for 300 pages, then have the bad guys arrested on the last page? No. Adversity is what shows your characters at their best and strongest, so there must be a balance between setbacks and wins.
How about hitting your character with every conceivable attack and disaster, and having them killed at the end. You can, but it’s brave of you. Readers are generally be looking for hope in their own lives – I know, I’ve talked to quite a lot of them – so seeing a character struggle valiantly, then lose, can get you put in the ‘depressing author’ box. That box is ten feet high and the sides are as smooth as glass. It’s possible to get out, but it rarely happens.
Variety in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Let’s use a television show as an example. People are more likely to have seen a popular show than read a specific novelette. The pilot episode of Dexter is a great exercise in character assembly. It’s 53 minutes long, which is about how long it takes to read a novelette, and it introduces a lot of characters. If you have not seen it, read on anyway, the details are unimportant – but consider watching it as a training exercise. The main characters are:
- Dexter Morgan: good, strong, very bright, capable, twisted
- James Doake: good, unsympathetic, antagonistic
- Debra Morgan: good, fun, vulnerable, ambitious
- Maria LaGuerta: good, authority figure, romantically inclined
- Rita Bennett: good, romantic, vulnerable
- Angel Batista: good, steady, strong, experienced
- Vince Masuka: good, bright, inquisitive
- Harry Morgan: good, wise, Dexter’s mentor
- Mike Donovan: evil, weak, controlled, successful (Serial Killer 1)
- Jaworski: evil, weak, thuggish, uncontrolled (Serial Killer 2)
- not named: evil, strong, capable, very bright (Serial Killer 3)
Eleven characters of some substance are introduced, so there are some great lessons in economical character development here.
Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who kills serial killers, and he is definitely the show’s standout character. Donovan and Jaworski are cameo evil, they are swept aside quickly. They exist only to show Dexter in action. Serial Killer 3 is there to stretch Dexter to his limit, and has to be his peer.
All the other characters are basically good, they are like the people in your office, shop, laboratory or team – part of the background and mostly harmless. Some make life hard for Dexter, but they are not hateful.
Avoiding Character Fatigue
Eleven quite important characters in a novelette-length story? Three or four is more the norm in written fiction, so how was it done in the Dexter pilot?
Do you recognize any of these people:
- The ambitious young co-worker?
- The time-serving older co-worker?
- The office geek?
- The single mother?
- The career woman who has tried to ignore romance?
- The guy with the chip on his shoulder?
We can all recognize those six people from our own lives. Now add one cameo wise mentor and two cameo killers, who are only there to fill in Dexter’s background, and do not require much depth because they are recognizable from other shows. Suddenly we are down to two characters who are truly out of the ordinary.
That is how eleven significant characters were jammed into 53 minutes: we already knew most of them.
Most fictional characters should be people all around us, whether dressed up as knights, scientists, detectives or astronauts. You don’t have to do much with them, because the reader should already know them. All you have to do is describe them – economically – so that reader can make the connection.
And Introducing …
Now comes the hard but fun part. You have to create the absolute standouts: the Walter Whites, Sherlocks, Irene Adlers and Dexter Morgans. They cannot be cameos, they must really have presence, so they require space, hard work and imagination to create. However, you only need one or two, or sometimes three, for a ten thousand word novelette. Put in too many, even in a novel, and you risk losing the reader. After all, the reader unconsciously expects to already know most of your cast.