Today we have a guest post by Candice Lemon-Scott. Thanks Candice!
It’s all about the People: Why Character Is Important
by Candice Lemon-Scott
When asked to do a piece on writing, I chose the topic, character. ‘Why? You might ask. Aren’t there more important aspects to writing like structure, plot and language? The short answer to that second question is, ‘No.’ The long answer I will attempt to provide here, so read on …
Why are the characters (or people) in a story so important?
The simplest way to answer this question for yourself is to think about what you enjoy reading. What do you want to know most? Usually, you will want to find out what happens.
That’s where plot comes in. But, more importantly than that, as readers we are only interested in finding out what happens as it relates to the main character of a book. If there is not an interesting character to begin with then we aren’t really going to care too much what happens to this character through the events that unfold. That’s when we put a book down and go for something else.
Likewise, when we finish reading a book, what is it that remains in our minds? What is that single thing that leaves us up at night long after we’ve turned the last page of a great story. Often, it’s the plight of the character or characters. The type of things we’re left thinking about include:
- I can’t believe they did that in the end.
- What an awful thing to happen.
- I’m so glad she survived that.
- In that situation, I would react totally differently.
- I wonder what will happen to those people now.
Don’t get me wrong, setting, plot, structure, language etc are also important aspects of a compelling read. But when it comes down to it, the people in the story are what matter most of all. This doesn’t just apply to literary fiction genres. It applies across every genre you can think of from the children’s picture book, to romance, to crime/mystery stories.
Take an action story, for example. Even there, the main question or premise for the book is whether or not the hero will live or die / succeed or fail.
Think of a few examples for yourself. What got you hooked on the book?
Ask yourself this: If you can’t relate to, identify or feel for the main character are you likely to read on?
Also, the plot often hinges on what happens to the main character. What conflict or problem is he/she facing? Will he/she change?
The character must learn, grow and/or change by whatever experience is presented. This is a fundamental part of story.
So, now it’s time to think about how we can apply this to our own writing …
How to Find a Character
You may be wondering how to create your own main character whom people will love, care about and enjoy watching change and grow. Here are a few thoughts:
Observation. There are a million examples of interesting people in our daily lives. It could be someone as close to us as our father, brother or best friend. Or, it could be the person who talked loudly on her mobile phone while you were trying to read on the train, or someone you read about in the newspaper. Often times, characters are exaggerations of people we know or have come across in real life. Sometimes they’re a combination of several people. They can even be a character created as a representation of a ‘type’ of person we have witnessed or heard about.
Imagination. This might sound obvious but where children are often in tune with their imaginations, and let them run riot, us adults sometimes struggle to get in touch with worlds created from our own thoughts and feelings.
Situation. Try creating a situation or plot and place a character within in. How should the hero look in this picture? How would your hero react? Another option is to try writing a profile for the type of character you want to create. You can include anything and everything from hair colour, to place of birth to mannerisms and reactions to situations. Now place that character in your situation and see how this type of person reacts.
How to Create Characters
The main character must be decided on early, and introduced in the opening pages. The reader needs to be aligned with this person from the very start. Other characters can be brought in as the story unfolds. Even minor characters have the primary role of aiding the main character’s story.
Sometimes the story is told from more than one viewpoint (eg. Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsglover; After the Fall by Kylie Ladd). In this case, each character should be given sufficient ‘time’ in the story and introduced relatively early on. Even with an ‘ensemble’ cast, often the reader will still be most aligned with one particular character.
Just as the main character needs to be brought in early, we need to know as much as possible about her, and as quickly as possible. There’s no use finding out in chapter ten that the main character of your story has brown, curly hair, when the reader has already imagined her with short, ginger hair. This goes for personality traits too. Though some things about the character may come out later, the fundamental aspects of your character need to be known almost immediately. From here, the reader is able to witness the character change and grow.
How to Describe a Character
- Create a back story for your character. You can use a simple chart, write something up in prose, or just have a good, long think about it.
- Physical characteristics. Write a paragraph describing your characters physical attributes. This is not always necessary. Some authors don’t include any information such as hair colour etc, rather they divulge more about the person’s deeper self.
- Reactions to situations. Put your character in situations that challenge her from the beginning. Every scene should reveal something about your character.
- Dialogue. How she speaks, reacts, argues and debates all reveal a great deal about your character.
A Good Rule to Follow:
My favourite, and probably the only rule, I like to follow with writing is this:
‘Show, don’t tell.’
The reader doesn’t want to be told how to think and feel about your character, rather the reader wants to discover this themselves by the way the character responds, feels and acts in situations.
Compare these two sentences:
‘Helen was a frugal, grumpy woman.’
‘Helen fought with the young cashier over the cost of the block of cheese, arguing it had been placed in the reduced section, therefore she should have it for that price.’
Which is the more interesting way of showing us Helen’s personality? I’d go with number two every time.
An exercise you can do:
- Write a character profile (include things like name, eye colour, socio-economic background, race, likes and dislikes, friends, family, pets, fears, hobbies)
- Write a physical description of your character
- Describe your character’s physical body, revealing something about her personality (For example, does she have a habit of chewing her hair, revealing her nervous disposition?)
- Put your character in a hostage situation and write about it. How does he react? What does he do?
Hopefully, this gives you a bit of insight into the importance of character and has provided a few ideas on creating strong and interesting people to place in your stories. Happy writing!