Monday, January 19, 2015

Characters Matter

By Pamela

Over the winter school break, my two college boys were home quite a bit and, in addition to loving their being here, I enjoyed movie marathons (John Grisham titles this time around) and they spent some time catching up on their favorite TV shows via Netflix.

Because I wanted to be where they were, I generally watched what they watched. And while I could appreciate the jokes in their favorite sitcoms, I had a hard time enjoying them at the same level they did. Later I realized it was because I had no idea who the characters were. I knew the actors but not the roles they played. I wasn't invested in their lives at all.

The same can be said for books. If the author doesn't do his or her job developing the characters, you can't invest yourself in the story. Try watching a TV series you're unfamiliar with. Even if it's award-winning and everyone you know loves it, my bet is you'll not feel the same passion if you pick up a random episode in the middle of a season. You'll want to ask, Who is she? Is he married to her or do they just work together? Did she used to be with someone else? And is she not over him? Questions abound and make it nearly impossible to become interested in the story.

As writers, we have to develop characters. And not just stock characters or puppets that bend at our commands. We have to love them first (or hate them just as passionately) and figure out how best to communicate that passion to the reader.

In order to create characters that resonate with your readers, you must develop them fully. Several books on my shelves can help:

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Page after page of examples of characters in novels as well as ideas for creating multidimensional characters and taking them through the paces in your story.

The First Five Pages
by Noah Lukeman

Because one of the first things your story does is introduce main characters, this book by Lukeman really helps hammer out the essentials for getting off on the right foot. My copy is highlighted pretty extensively and I need to reread this ASAP.

Escaping into the Open by Elizabeth Berg

One of my favorite authors gives us her take on how to write good fiction. In the chapter "The Good Lie," she talks about creating empathetic characters your reader will relate to. Berg also has a lot of great exercises in this book that will get you stretching those creative muscles.

In closing, think back to television shows you loved. Chances are the characters stayed with you long after you turned off the TV. My list will probably be different than yours (and will date me) but I can think of Rhoda in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Quincy, M*A*S*H, Carol Burnett, Cheers, Designing Women, Friends, Seinfeld, and the list goes on and on. Great characters I couldn't wait to watch week after week. The challenge is to create memorable characters on the page as well.


  1. Thanks for posting this Pamela. I, too, had a similar experience lately watching Wild Card with my 18-year-old son. I didn't care whatsoever about the characters. Worse, Sofia Vergara played a bit part of a bimbo, and I'd like to think beautiful, rich, successful actresses could do more to promote the well being of women in our society these days. By the way, I also like Janet Burroway's craft book, Writing Fiction, for characterization techniques.

  2. You're welcome, Elizabeth. I recently watched a movie called CHEF and found it refreshing to see Sofia V. play a really good role where she was so much softer than her Modern Family character.

    Thanks for mentioning Burroway's book. I will definitely check it out, because that is one I don't have.


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