Friday, February 10, 2012

Sure He's Pretty, But Does He Have Character? by Guest Blogger Matthew Bryant

Today we have a guest so everybody be on your best behavior! Welcome Matthew Bryant and thanks for joining us at All Things Writing!

You know that guy that put a dress on a mop, a tied a ribbon in its hair and then proceeded to introduce it to people as his date at prom?  No?  That’s because nobody outside of network television is that stupid.  This doesn’t even count as humor in a sitcom, it’s just a sad appeal for laughs.

            But how many times have you seen this in the literary world?  Sure the antagonist and protagonist have some basis of a personality, maybe there’s a foil or two thrown in, but everybody else seems like a cardboard cut-out with crudely drawn scowls or smiles.  This could just as easily slide by the casual reader who’s been skimming your book anyway, but if you expect your audience to hang on your every word, you’d better make every word count.  How do you do this?  By fleshing out as you go.

            I’ve probably stumbled across at least two dozen different iterations of the ’20 questions to ask your protagonist’.  Here’s the problem with that, you’re not speed-dating… you’re not interviewing some schmuck for an unpaid internship… you’re creating life.  In fact, the first question you should be asking is for you: “What makes this person different?”

            While personalities are flexible, a lot of what you should be considering will be specifically geared towards genre.  Whether it’s action, suspense, romance, science fiction or fantasy, it will most definitely have some unique questions.  I’m not saying you can’t ask Ricky McBlowitup if he kisses on the first date, or if he would rather take his date to the club or stay home and snuggle under a blanket, but these answers might not be pertinent to the story.  What WOULD be pertinent is if the questions make him uncomfortable, upset, cynical or he just dishes out a straightforward answer. 

            I hope you’re beginning to get the idea of the types of questions you should be asking, but for those who desperately cling to lists, I’ll throw out some examples:

·         What do you do to unwind after a long day?

·         Would you rather attend a party with lots of people, or a smaller gathering with a few close friends?

·         Is your next car going to be a motorcycle, sedan, minivan, suv, etc…

·         You just got stood up at the movies, what do you do?

·         Can you initiate conversation in a room full of strangers?

·         Where would you sit in the classroom?  (examples could be front, back, middle, by the window, by the hot girl/guy, by my friends, etc…)

·         How hard is it to wake you up?  How many hours of sleep do you typically get?

·         Are you happy with your job?  Do you get along with your boss?  With your coworkers?  With clients?

·         What would your next job be?

·         Where do you want to go when you retire?

·         Where would you go locally for a vacation?  Internationally?

·         How do you take your coffee?

The point that I’m getting at is that these are questions that ANYbody can answer… even if it’s to say, “I don’t drink coffee.”  Maybe they drink tea or soda, or maybe they have something against caffeine… there’s probably a story to that as well.  Until a character is real to you, they’ll never be real to the reader.  By the time you sit down to write your story, the personality of your main characters should feel as natural as a worn-in baseball cap.  To the degree that (and you experience writers can vouch on this one) the characters will break free from your well-plotted outline and follow a completely different lead.  Not such a bad thing.  If they’re unpredictable to you, they’re unpredictable to the reader.  Trying to rope them back in and have them do your bidding will only result in awkwardness.

Now for the mop.  Anybody that enters the story, even if it’s just the guy driving the cab or working the desk at the motel, has a story of their own.  Do you need to know the story?  Absolutely not.  Do you need to let the reader know their story?  Not unless you’re Stephen King.  So what are you getting at?  Emotions my friend, emotions.  If you want more than a cardboard cut-out, you can ask any character that saunters onto the page one simple question.  “Hey, how’s your day going?”

I made this mistake once at a bar, simply making small-talk to the guy standing next to me as I was waiting for my pitcher to fill up.  Turns out the guy was having an absolutely awful day – to the point that I ended up sharing the pitcher with him instead of my friends waiting across the room, only to drive him out to another party across town while devising a plan to save his relationship with a very upset girlfriend. 

They actually got married six months ago, just in case you like happy endings.  What was I talking about again?  Oh right, answering the question.  The point is, anybody can be having a day.  Is it good or is it bad?  Is it just another day?  Why so?  Answer this question and you’ve established a primary motive for a secondary character.  Maybe they’re suspicious because somebody stiffed them earlier.  Maybe they’re sleepy because they’re on a second shift.  It could be that your protagonist reminds them of their cousin who died two years ago and they can’t stop staring.  Just those three examples have already added a bit of intrigue to the people in question, haven’t they?  Go on… admit it… you’re a bit curious now.

And once again, the reader doesn’t need to know the motive.  They may NEVER know the motive, though you should totally watch out for red herrings.  If nothing else, you’ve got a little sauce to stir around the dialogue, spice it up a bit.  Maybe that non-essential character will come back later in the story when you least expect it.  It will certainly keep the readers hunched over your book with fingers already itching for the next page.

Matthew Bryant is a writer and artist from Dallas, Texas as well as a member of the Greater Fort Worth Writer's group. For more tips on writing or examples of his work, check out his page at


  1. I love the drawings, too! Welcome to ATW, Matthew.

  2. Nice post, Matthew. You're right. Many of our characters' traits show up on the page only by suggestion, but that's enough to make them real to a reader. Doesn't that reflect the way we interact with people in real life?

  3. Thanks for the kind words, guys!

    @Sandy - Absolutely it does, which is why we should toss as many ripples as possible into it. If I wanted real life, I'd get a second job in retail or service. ;)

  4. Man, to share your pitcher of beer with a stranger and then get him married off proves that you are one kind fellow. Good tips. Stephen King does get away with it and so does Stieg Larsson.

  5. Love the way you fill out your characters and the questions you ask them even if they're not going anywhere in the story.

  6. Thanks so much for coming by! Hope you found something helpful :)