There's no one better to talk about the importance of characters than Allison Brennan. We are honored to have you here. Allison welcome! Posted by Ruby Johnson.
Characters are People Too!
By Allison Brennan
“If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.” – Stephen King, On Writing
Therein lies my philosophy, and perhaps my neurosis. Characters, to me, are people too and in fact, they should be real to the author, so much so that you’d recognize one of your characters walking down the street. Better, your readers should feel that if they met one of your characters at Starbucks, they would instantly recognize them—not simply their physical attributes, but their personality and mannerisms. That the character becomes so real that she leaps off the page in 4D—physically, plus their thoughts, feelings, dreams, and fears (the fourth dimension.)
One of my favorite workshops to present is No Plotters Allowed which I originally created with the incomparable bestselling author Patti Berg. While the title is rather dramatic (and the subtitle “Solutions to Writers Block for those who Can’t, Won’t or Don’t Plot” rather stubborn), it truly is a workshop designed to help people figure out why they are stuck.
I can’t write your book for you, but I might be able to identify your problems. Two of the reasons we’re not touching here for lack of time and space—1) Talent, or immature ability and the need to learn more about the craft of writing; and 2) Personal issues, i.e. an unsupportive spouse, dependents, or demanding day job.
The other reason is the most common, at least for writers who have made the commitment and have invested in learning the craft of writing (the investment, BTW, is rarely a financial investment. Like Stephen King, I believe in daily writing and through writing and editing I believe everyone becomes a stronger writer), is a stubbornness among writers to force their characters into a box. To make them perform as the writer thinks they should perform, to make the choices the writer thinks they should make.
My daughters noticed that I talk about my characters as if they are real people. For example, one day I was brainstorming with them (16 and 14) in the car and my oldest suggested something. I frowned and said, “But Lucy wouldn’t do that.” While it was a logical progression based on the information I’d shared with my daughters, it was a decision my character would not make.
I’ve found that more often than not, when I’m stuck in a book, it’s because I’ve forced my characters down a path they would not have chosen for themselves; or worse, had them making decisions they would not have made. This means backtracking—re-reading what I have written until I find the scene where I intruded in the normal course of events. I edit, thinking now about what would my character do or say or think. Sometimes, this means deleting a chapter or three or more. Sometimes, it’s an easy fix and I happily go on my way until I, ahem, impose my will on my characters yet again.
It’s like children. We all want to make our children do what we want them to. What we know is right. What we know is the best choice. But sometimes, our choices should never be their choices; sometimes, they need to make mistakes. And honestly? Sometimes we’re wrong (though I will not admit that to my children now, because as far as they’re concerned I’m always right, and I’d like them to believe that fantasy a little while longer.)
But with kids, we lay down rules and guidelines, and often find ourselves doing the same with our characters without realizing that our characters are not our children, but fully-developed human beings with their own unique backstory that has shaped them into the people they are today. We are all creatures of our past coupled with our God-given talents and personalities. We all have unique genetic codes that, when combined with environment, create us into unique human peoples. Our characters are the exact same, and until we start accepting that, we’ll be trying to force them into a mold that is both boring and rather sterile—all because we’re trying to protect them, and ourselves, from what we—and they—fear.
I have read many compelling characters in fiction, characters who leap off the page, characters who are more than the author in that they are, somehow, more real to me than the author who created them.
Nora Roberts is an author who does an amazing job creating very real characters and imbuing them with an authenticity that is rare and wonderful. Her JD Robb In Death series gives us a world that no matter how long we’ve been away, we slip into it like a hot bubble bath, with familiarity and a sigh. Eve Dallas, Roarke, Peabody, McNab,--but even more important, her secondary characters which are add depth and richness to the story that would be unattainable with cardboard stick figures, there only to move the plot along. Officer Trueheart, Mavis, Trina, even Galahad the cat.
Some other fictional characters who have stayed with me long after I close the books . . . Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles (and secondary character Anthony Sansone, who is one of my favorites); Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, and Will Graham; Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller; Robert Crais’s Joe Pike; Lisa Gardner’s Pierce Quincy; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; and every character, big and small, in Stephen King’s masterpiece The Stand.
As Robert McKee says in his book STORY, “Character is story.” Stay true to your characters by butting out and letting them write their own story. It will be so much stronger, richer, and real.