Monday, July 11, 2011

What a character!

There are lots of aspects to creating characters, I've found. One of the most important for me is the name. Once I have the right name, the character comes to life. I've had the wrong name for some of them, and they lie lifeless on the page, two-dimensional, forced characters. If I listen close enough, the character will tell me his or her name. Of course, that's the way writers speak of our own subconsciousness. It's not magic, the characters aren't really speaking to us, but it sure seems like it!

The first few novels I wrote had problems. The main one, I think, was with my protagonists. I got so many comments from agents that they didn't "fall in love" with her. I didn't want them to fall in love, but I did want them to represent me. My character was getting in the way. She wasn't vivid enough. One day it finally came to me. I'd been told many times, but for some reason it didn't take. Fiction has to be bigger than real life. No one wants to read about ordinary people, ordinary day-to-day happenings. They want what they read to be more interesting than that. I thought I had quirky characters, but they weren't quirky enough.

Do you choose someone you don't like for the victim? I don't think this is the best idea. Yes, it's cathartic to kill off someone who's done you wrong, and I can highly recommend it, especially in a short story or a piece for yourself. But for a mystery novel, you want to reader to care about catching the killer. The reader wants to see justice done and if a bad person is dead, it's been done--end of story--no need for the rest of the book. Kill off someone nice and the reader will be with you, wanting you to catch the bad guy.

That's where to put the person you detest. Make him the killer. Everyone can see what a bad person he is, right? Although a cardboard cutout all around bad guy IS a boring villain. You're only basing your bad guy on the hated person. Dig a little deeper for a real character. If you can see things from his point of view, if you can let the reader in on why he did what he did, draw a little sympathy for him, you'll have a more rounded, interesting character.

I'd like to hear about how other people view their characters. Do you have sidekicks? I've never gotten too much into those. But I like to have some other family members around, and at least one love interest.


  1. You know, I really hate it when an agent says, "I just didn't fall in love with the character." What a cop out! Get a new line already! I'd be more interested in hearing why they didn't fall in love. I know, I know. They don't have time to go into details.

    I think finding the right name is important, too. I find that if I don't have that, sometimes I can't "see" the character.

    And I agree with you about the bad guy. You have to find things that make him sympathetic. After all, we gotta love to hate him!

    Good work, Kaye!

  2. Thanks, Mary Ann! I did sometimes get more comments on my MC, how she didn't "come alive" or they "didn't connect" with her. I just think I wasn't writing a good MC.

  3. When I began, my protagonist's name was Rue. She moped around and bored me to death. I changed her name to Molly, and she's much livelier now.

    Ooh!--I just realized which of my characters needs to be renamed Rue.

  4. Unless she gets boring, Kathy. Then she gets renamed.

  5. I love your warnings about getting revenge on people you know by turning them into characters. It becomes so much harder to see that character completely and write them as a complex character. The same can be said about loving a character so much that they don't have any negative qualities. I often tell my students that complexity is what makes characters (and humans) interesting and worth reading about.

    Thanks for this post!
    -Miss GOP

  6. Good thoughts, Miss Good! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Good thoughts, Kaye. I made one person who swindled a friend into a villain, but I did kill him right away. That was cathartic for both of us. Still, my bad guy is a prominent figure and I hope he's interesting. Somehow the bad guys want to take over this book. I'm not falling for my hero myself, so how can I expect anyone else to? I'm rambling here, but you made me think about all sorts of things. Good post!

  8. Kaye,
    I don't base my characters on real people. They come to mind with their own histories and agendas. But I must say, I love your idea of making someone you dislike the killer.

  9. Good post, Kaye. I started out with a too-good MC with a boring (ready steady) personal life. I threw in 1 or 2 problems in her past, but it just wasn't enough. Every other character in the book was more interesting than she was. I'm working on ratcheting up the conflicts for her and while I'm at it, I think she's going to need a new name.

  10. You just killed my dream of knocking off any real-life enemies in my book:-) Once, I wrote a poem though, which was quite vicious and made me feel pretty good for a minute but then, I felt pretty stupid for putting so much energy into a poem toward someone I couldn't stand the sight of. What I have learned is to take little pieces from them to build a character.

  11. Thanks for looking in, gals!

    Ellis, some of my villains are favorite characters of mine.

    Marilyn, even when I use real people for a basis, they seem to morph. I don't think the real people would recognize themselves, and that disclaimer will go in the front anyway.

    Betsy,this sounds SO familiar!

    Totsy Mae, I'm so sorry I've dashed your dream. But congrats on the vicious poem. At least you can use those nasty people in bits and pieces. (Don't feel bad about the vicious poem--it might be good.)