“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.