This from a guy whose first book had a tied-up woman on the cover. I should know, right? (See my books page if you’re curious… and I bet you are.)
Actually, that cover — not my idea — has caused me as many headaches as it has book sales. But that’s another blog.
Most of us are drawn to writing with something that comes easy and something that doesn’t. More than a few of us find writing fancy sentences an easy labor of self-absorbed love (sometimes so much so that we have to back off our eloquence to dim the purple in our prose) and some of us are naturals at creating great characters right out of the chute, too.
Me? Not so much. I’m a plot guy, and the crafting of deep, resonant and compelling characters, the kind that excite reviewers and elevate the work to something worthy of a dust jacket, has been something I have to work at. Still do.
There’s more stuff written about characterization than any other aspect of storytelling, and it continues to elude a lot of writers because, unlike structure, there’s no template or format for a great character. But…
… there is a checklist. And a good checklist shall set you free.
Before I offer up that checklist — each entry of which is fodder for an entire workshop or book — allow me to share my favorite tip about writing great characters. More of a warning, really, since this is the most frequent abuse of characters found among new and unpublished writers, and a few published ones:
Don’t confuse personality with character. Personality — or quirks — is only one of the items on that checklist, and yet for some it becomes the alpha and the omega of characterization. A quirk-heavy character without corresponding depth is what reviewers and high school creative writing teachers call flat or one-dimensional. And what editors call “pass.”
Think Jerry Seinfeld in his fabled television sit-com, which was self-admittedly about nothing at all. One dimension — funny. Now think Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Also funny, but much, much deeper. Immortally so, as it turns out.
From a character-evaluation standpoint it doesn’t matter what they wear or like to eat or if they chew gum or bite their nails or sit with their knees too far apart. Those are all just quirks.
Other quirks can be more telling and therefore valuable — like whether or not they shower, if they’re good tippers of not, if they’re litter bugs, etc. These are issues that connect to deeper roots, and therefore are something more than quirks designed to amuse or differentiate. Rule of thumb: a quirk is not an indicator of character, it just is; if quirky habits and values link to something deeper and connect to the story, then it’s of value.
What does matter when it comes to characterization is the nature and depth of their values, their integrity or the lack thereof, their decisions under fire, their actions despite their darker urges, what they say versus what they mean, their relationship with the truth, their dreams, their courage, their kindness, the way they love, or not. In other words, their “character” as a human being.
My favorite non-literary example to make this literary point clear is a fellow named Bill Clinton. Brilliant. A true public servant. Funny. Eloquent. Nice hair. But what was his relationship with the truth, even when that truth was accountable to the entire American public? Where was his integrity when Monica wanted to play Hide The Cigar? What were his values when it came to his marriage? Just who was this guy?
Say what you will about Bill, he was complex and compelling. He stirred it up. Like him or hate him, there’s little doubt that he would go to the ends of the earth to defend his country and our way of life. Heroic in one sense — even if he’s a bit cloudy about the definition of the word is — very human in another.
If Bill Clinton was a character in a book, he’d be interesting.
Here’s that checklist about great characters. Much more on each in future posts.
What is your character’s backstory, the experiences that programmed how they think and feel and act today? What is their inner demon, and how does it influence decisions and actions in the face of the outer demon you are about to throw at them? What is the character’s arc, how do they change and grow over the course of the story, and how to they apply that learning toward become the catalytic force that drives the denouement of the story?
There’s more, but those are the basics. And they’re a whole lot deeper than a few quirks and a great sense of humor.
As for faster and harder… well, these, too, are products of all of the above. Just ask Bill.