Who Are These People?

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

~ BILL CLINTON’s first-term campaign mantra

We are all products of our past.  Upbringing, peers, what family taught us about our heritage; what we learned in our first jobs we took into our second.  From the loving aunt to the snooty receptionist, from sharing peanut butter with a fondly remembered dog to that first fall from the old oak tree, we are all collections of past experiences, stuffed in a sack and tied up with a bow.  Your friends like you and your adversaries don’t because of the hundreds of thousands of experiences and contacts that have combined to form your personality and world view.  The vast majority of them, we don’t remember, but they’re all in there, having their effect on the face we present to the world, and that’s fine.  We don’t have to remember every detail; we are who we are.

But what about our characters, the people who inhabit the stories we write?  Long-time followers will be aware of the principle I have named “Tyler’s Axiom.”  Allow me to restate it for the newer arrivals:

Characters are fiction

Of course, if you’re dashing off a piece of flash fiction, or a 3,000-word morality fable, maybe they don’t need to be all that, but what if you’re undertaking a novel, or a series?  If that is the case, then I am here to suggest that if you want your characters to leap off the page, then you need to know every pertinent detail of the journey that brought them to Page One of your book.  Sure, if your main character goes to buy some meat, and the butcher wants to tell a rambling story about his brother-in-law while he does the cutting, you can gloss it over; the butcher will never be seen again, and doesn’t have to be explained.  But your main character, the third-grade teacher who’s tapped to serve as a juror on a high profile murder case, the killer’s henchman who has decided that she is the weak link that can be influenced by threats, her husband, her sister, these people are instrumental to the success of your story, and nothing can be left to chance.

The henchman, the teacher, the criminal, the attorneys all have backstories, journeys, if you will, that made them who they are, and while it would be disastrously boring for you to give the reader all of these backstories in huge information dumps, you must know them!  What made this woman devote her life to teaching?  Was she dedicated to leaving no child behind, or was she afraid to leave the school environment and compete in the “real” workforce?  Why did she not attempt to get out of jury duty?  Was it a sense of civic duty, a desire to experience the courtroom environment to become a better teacher, or was she bored with the classroom and eager to take a break?  How about her relationship with the aforementioned husband?  Or is she a single mom, and if she is, how does she feel about that?  Betrayed, abandoned, or relieved to be free?  Does she have a tattoo?  Something in her personality caused her to get it.  What?

Sure, you can just start writing:

Most people are annoyed when they open their mailbox to find a jury summons staring back at them, but third-grade teacher Gloria Sims saw it as an opportunity.

But if you want your novel to be memorable, to leave your readers thinking about the world you’ve created long after they’ve left it behind, you need to do more.  You’d better know why, because fifty pages on, when she reacts to another unexpected stimulus, her reaction and her motives had better be consistent.  This means a fully fleshed-out character sheet with background, upbringing, childhood, work environment, everything pertinent that contributed to who this person is.  Let me repeat, pertinent.  A lot of the little day-to-day things aren’t, but the difference between an abusive childhood and a loving one is going to make specific differences in the life of the adult involved, and you, the writer, need to know how.  And this is just for one of your main characters!

Once you know all these things, the temptation then exists to pile them all on the reader in huge information dumps.  If you follow the sample sentence above with a six-page dissertation about Ms. Sims’ education from kindergarten through her graduate work, I promise you that no reader will reach the end of it, and if your book doesn’t get thrown at a stray cat, it will at best be used as a potted plant pad.  But you need to know these things, and you need to use them constantly to inform your characters’ words and actions.

I can hear the electric whine of attenuated nerves already, way at the upper edge of the threshold of hearing:  This guy wants me to become a planner!  No, not really, not for the big picture; if pantsing your plot works for you, by all means, carry on.  But characters are far more complex than simple plots, and it is flatly impossible for any one writer to keep up with every little quirk and foible that he attaches to the half-dozen major players that power a novel.  What I’m telling you is that if you want your readers to be discussing your book a year after they’ve read it, your characters had better be as rich, nuanced, and consistent as your immediate family members.  Readers notice things, and inconsistencies are right at the top of the list.  Get your characters right, and they’ll write your story for you; take the lazy way out, make them up on the fly, and they’ll get their revenge by dooming you to obscurity.

If this torrent of words is a bit too convoluted for you to follow, be guided by these examples:  Lord of the Rings is not about the Ring; that’s the biggest MacGuffin in the history of literature.  Lord of the Rings is about the titanic struggles between the people and similar creatures who want to destroy or possess it.  Likewise, when Q outfits 007 for his mission, those gadgets he provides are fun to check out, but the thrill of a Bond film is seeing how Bond, a character, uses them to overcome the obstacles sure to be placed in his path.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton,

It’s the characters, stupid!

I think that about covers it.

9 thoughts on “Who Are These People?

  1. Jack, I appreciated your thoughts. I am very much an advocate for a character driven story. I am also very much a pantser. Because of a short attention span, I will usually “deepen” my characters on my rewrites. By the end of the first draft, I am now more acquainted with each. Now your suggestions would probably save some long rewrites, but again, being a creature of habit, this works for me. A side note is that three of my fifteen first drafts have been series (12 drafts-three series) so the characters development is a lot simpler in those cases. Anyway, I did again appreciate your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good morning, Ralph, and welcome to the conversation. If you have a writing method that works for you, then I’m no one to say that it’s inferior. I’ve tried to pants a couple of stories with mixed results, but I would be terrified to float my characters like that.

      An example: My blimp pilot, Patience Hobbs, has a tattoo that is always covered by the Victorian-style clothing she has to wear. It has never appeared on the page, and I have no plans to put it there. Her closest friends don’t know she has it, but I do. I know where it is, who put it on her, why she allowed it, and what it signifies to her, and the reasons behind its existence inform nearly every decision she makes. I believe it makes her a richer character, and I don’t think either it or its nuances would exist if I hadn’t put a lot of preliminary work into her before a word ever found its way onto paper.

      But that’s just me. If your system works, that’s all that matters. You’re one of my newer web-friends, and I’ll be putting some of your work into my reading queue if the Edit from Hell ever comes to an end. I’m looking forward to seeing how you work, and with luck, learning something from you. So, thanks for stopping by and joining the discussion, I hope you have a great weekend, and much success with your writing!

      Like

      1. That little tid bit on the tattoo is interesting and allows the reader to speculate, which is a good draw into the story. It might simply be that writing stules are a reflection of the author themselves. I tend to only want to know what a person is willing to reveal. Others are a lot more curious. I firmly believe the end result of what we know about a character could wind up the same, just approached from a different style.
        Anyway, look forward to more of your insights, and thanks for the response.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jack, I have similar thoughts about knowing who your character is, but I didn’t recognize the importance in my earliest books. So now I’m revisiting them, hoping to add depth and interest into them.
    My writing style has been influenced by the ‘lean’ development style of some of the early hard SciFi writers. As I reread my pub’d books I’m aware that readers ( and me ) would enjoy knowing more about the characters and how they feel. I have some depth but I’ve missed opportunities to really engage them outside of the immediate crisis.
    I enjoy your blog and thoughts. I’ll be back for more.
    Gary

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Gary, and welcome to the conversation. I have to tip my hat to you, going back and “fixing” old, completed works is a skill I’ve never been able to master. I wish you great success with that, and all that you do. It’s interesting watching your own style develop. The difference is that when my style was developing, “indie” publishing wasn’t a thing, so the only records of my early style are some old manuscripts in a storage box. I was fortunate in that, as I was forced to study and try to get better to sell to a traditional publisher. I know I would have published my unedited first drafts, had that route been available, and my reputation would have been destroyed before I ever developed a style. It sounds like you’ve come out of it all right, though. Perhaps your best is yet to come!

      Drop in any time; I’d love to hear your thoughts on any facet of The Craft.

      Like

  3. Spot on, brother! If only more authors paid attention to their characters.

    Anthony Trollope wrote in his Autobiography:

    “A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos. To make that picture worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known. To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show.”

    Alas, many authors have but a wooden show.

    Ray Bradbury said, Create your characters, let them do their thing, and there’s your story. Characters are indeed story.

    To have a story without lively characters in it, is like living your life without you in it. Ain’t gonna happen.

    I’m an unabashed pantser, but I always pay attention to my characters. I don’t think I have quite the detail you do, but I always strive to impregnate with traits of charactes which are known. It’s the only way to make your story memorable, as you note.

    Excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by again; it’s always a good time when you show up! Them are some pretty smart fellers you quote. I’ve been guided by a couple that in my advanced old age I can’t find attributions for. Maybe you know them.

      “Authors don’t write books, characters do,” possibly Arthur C. Clarke, and,

      “I simply create my characters and set them loose in the world, then I run along behind them with a note pad, desperately trying to write fast enough to keep up.” No idea on that one, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

      I suspect that there are a lot of writers who see the Martins, the Rowlings, the Kings, raking in the dough and riding the fame, and they think, “That’s better than spending my life in a cubicle. I’m going to do that!” First of all, writing, writing well, is a horribly demanding endeavor that no one in his right mind would consider an “easy gig,” and if you don’t have the fire inside you, you’ll never be able to make that true commitment. Second, what many people don’t realize is that writing is hard work; if it wasn’t, we’d all be on the best-seller lists. The handful who make it are the ones who are willing to do the work.

      Finally, as one of your readers, let me assure my readers that, whatever your level of detail, your characters live; you’re obviously doing the work! Great hearing from you. Drop in again sometime, and we’ll pick up where we left off.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately I don’t know who said those fab quotes, but they are solid gold.

        Lawrence Block once wrote, Writing is easy; but that doesn’t mean it’s a cinch, it’s never a cinch. For a writer, writing should come easily. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Again, you are spot on.

        Liked by 1 person

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