Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do your characters have character?

Take a moment to consider diving into a huge bowl of steaming, robust, homemade stew for dinner tonight (beef is my personal favorite).

What makes a heapin’ helpin’ of stew so appealing?

Is it the main ingredient (beef, chicken, seafood or whatever)?  Is it the array of spices whose flavors cascade across your taste buds like a culinary waterfall?  Is it the herbs that add just the right touch of tingle to that mouthwatering montage?  Or is it the produce and veggies that add their own unique texture, crunch, and subtle highlights to the finished product?

The answer is: all of the above.

If you removed just one instrument from that delectable orchestra, it simply wouldn’t taste the same; something would be missing, and anyone sampling your creation would detect it immediately.

The product of your long hours of slaving over a hot stove would be no better than that canned stuff you buy at the local supermarket.

Now, what’s the correlation, you ask, between stews and novels?

I offer you this theory.

A novel is merely the sum of its parts: plot, setting, suspense, dialogue, narrative, timing, conflict, climax, resolution, and—of course—characters.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the next Gone With The Wind; if your characters aren’t up to their tasks, your literary stew is doomed to fall flat on its bookend.

I introduce a character into a novel for one simple purpose: to perform some action that keeps the master storyline moving along at an acceptable pace.  Players earn their roles in my stories by doing something: either performing some action solitarily (interacting with a situation); or by interacting directly with another player.  Boring, one-dimensional characters (whether their roles are major or incidental) are ingredients that should never make it to the dinner table.

If they aren’t needed, they don’t need to be there.

Now comes into play the writer’s sometimes twisted imagination.  What must one character do to another in order to earn his/her keep?  The options are many.  Here are but a few:

  • Love them.
  • Hate them.
  • Befriend them.
  • Stab them in the back.
  • Entice them into bed.
  • Kick them out of bed.
  • Make their lives joyous and fulfilling.
  • Make their lives sheer hell.
  • Give them gifts.
  • Steal from them.
  • Put the toilet seat up.
  • Put the toilet seat down.
  • Remove the toilet seat.
  • Rip the toilet out entirely.
  • Cook a scrumptious stew for dinner.
  • Throw a frozen dinner (still frozen) at them.
  • Swear BY them.
  • Swear AT them.
  • Help them solve their problems.
  • BE one of their problems.
You get the idea.

When creating characters, pile on the personality layers higher than Grandma’s lasagna.  Your literary children have a mammoth task to perform: they must convey themselves, their personalities, and their motivations to readers who have a wide spectrum of opinions, comfort levels, and experience-based filters.  Your words are the only tools they have to accomplish this gargantuan task.  Help them out by going WAAAAAAY overboard and having fun with them.   

Enable them to get themselves across.

Make them brilliant; make them laughingly stupid.  Make them as affectionate and gentle as kittens; make them meaner than junkyard dogs (R.I.P., Jim Croce!).  Make them loyal and treasured confidantes; make them backstabbers who wouldn’t think twice about betraying a friend.  Make them as benevolent as Mother Teresa; make them as nauseatingly evil as Richard Van Werner.  (You’ll understand that last point if you buy and read “Child of Privilege.”)

Any character caught (figuratively speaking) texting, smoking a cigarette, or talking on a cell phone on my time (and word count and page space) is outa there!

My players cut the mustard or they get cut.

A novel lacking vibrant characters is like a piece of candy without the chocolate coating; a slab of barbequed ribs without the sauce; Curley without Moe and Larry (yes, I am that old!); Chicago-style hot dogs without the “garden”; or a tropical drink without that little paper umbrella.

It just ain’t right … and your novel won’t be either.

For additional thoughts about painting literary characters, check out my blog post: My Top 5 Writing Tips:   

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