Have Some Character

So you’ve decided you want to write a novel and you’ve picked your genre, remembering that it’s OK (even encouraged) to blend genres a little. Now it’s time to talk about the people who you will be writing about for the next 300-ish pages.

The Third Thing: Characters

Remember that story about that person who did that thing in that place? They were so something, weren’t they? Especially when they used their thing to do that thing.

You’ve got to have a main character in your story, and it’s best that they be unique and interesting.

I mean, Twilight and Fifty Shades sold enough copies that we could literally build a temple to bland Mary Sue characters from copies of those books, then warm our cold, pretentious hearts in the fiery glow as we burn it down. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a character who is a fantasy wish fulfillment of the author, or who is little more than a shell for readers to project their own personality into. It’s just that by doing that you run the risk of readers becoming bored very quickly.

My advice is to have all of your characters be as interesting as possible. All your characters. Be able to say who the character is and why they are interesting in a snappy sentence, in part because people will forget names, so you want every character to have a strong personality and reason to exist so that readers can connect with them as people, rather than just names.

I just saw The Fifth Element on a big screen for the first time last week, so I’m going to use some examples from that awesome movie. Yes, it’s a pile of sci-fi camp, but it ticks some very important boxes in the writing department. You’ve got:

  • Korbin Dallas – Sole survivor ex-military dude who sucks at driving a cab and is worse at maintaining healthy relationships.
  • Leeloo – Orange-haired alien girl who knows more than she should and speaks a cute made up language.
  • Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg – Insane weapons dealer. Expect the unexpected, so long as it’s over the top and evil.
  • Ruby Rhod – Wild-haired celebrity host who whines a lot and seems to have no goal but to make money and bed beautiful women, but is tougher than he seems.
  • Father Vito Cornelius – Awkward hobbit who must deliver the precious in order to defeat evil.
  • The President – The president. He’s a politician.
  • Assorted side characters, such as the scientist with the weird haircut, the goofy military commander, and the blue alien who sings.

You could totally describe The Fifth Element as “That nutty movie where a loser cab driver and a girl with orange hair fight a crazy guy with a weird accent to steal some rocks from a blue alien and save the world” and, while that description has at least one mistake and lacks detail, it is enough to catch the eye of anyone who likes weird science fiction movies.

Even the aforementioned “I want a magical boyfriend” fantasy books intentionally leave the protagonist empty enough that the reader can project themself into the role of Bella or I-am-named-Anastasia-but-am-really-Bella, but use some solid characterization to dig into the personalities of the secondary characters, thus spawning vast media empires fueled by devotion to vampire and for-legal-reasons-I-am-not-a-vampire love interests.

So I encourage you to take some time to dig into your characters’ personalities. Come up with something unique about each and every one of them. Even if you don’t highlight it in your prose, just privately knowing that the arms dealer your protagonist is buying depleted uranium ammunition from has a secret Precious Moments figurine collection and plays tuba on the weekends will help you to write more effective dialogue and perhaps inspire you to describe them in a more human manner, rather than just writing a caricature of every art dealer you’ve ever seen in a movie.

So what’s the point?

You’ve picked your genre. You probably have a general idea of your plot (we’ll talk more about that soon). You probably also have an idea who your main character will be and possibly some of the supporting characters.

There’s more to it, and truth be told many a successful writer doesn’t even follow half these suggestions, but I truly believe that if you have a sense of who your characters are before you start writing, your stories will be better.

Homework: Get to know your main character and any supporting characters you already have in mind. Consider…

  • What’s their name?
  • What is unique about them?
  • What secret are they trying to keep?
  • What is their most important goal, both in this story and in life?
  • How will they be changed by this story?

Side note: Don’t be afraid if you don’t know everything yet. We’re not writing a biography of a fictional character, just trying to make them more engaging. Get some of these details down, then take note of others which come out as you write. Revision will iron out any inconsistencies.