I can’t believe the year’s almost over. Where did the past few months go?
I wanted to get much more done this year. But we’ll talk about that in a few weeks...
While posting my last few little rants and adding in links, I realized there’s a lot of basic stuff I haven’t revisited in two or three years now. I think part of it is because I’ve been doing more conventions and talking about these topics there, so it feels like I’m going over them all the time.
Anyway, over the next month or two I want to go over some things like dialogue, stakes, action, and a few other random tips and tricks I’ve stumbled across during the many years of mistakes that make up my career.
Right now, I wanted to talk about some character basics. Three of them, to be precise. Put this rant near the top of the advice column. I’m really, really tempted to call it a rule, but I think that would spark too many comments about various exceptions and distract from the point I’m trying to make.
Pretty much across the board, my characters need to be believable, relatable, and likeable. If my protagonist doesn’t have these three traits, I’m pretty much screwed. It’s not impossible to have a story where my characters don’t have these traits, but it’s going to be an uphill battle. Like, rolling-a-boulder-up-a-mountain level uphill battle.
Allow me to explain by going over each of these. We’ll do that with my frequently-used volunteer character, Dot. Also, there’s a lot of back and forth between them, so I apologize now if this gets a bit confusing or jumbled at points.
First up, Dot has to be believable. Almost nothing is more important than this. If my reader can't believe in the character within the established setting, if they don’t feel like a real person, my story's got an uphill battle going right from the start. It doesn't matter who (or what) Dot is, she must be believable.
How do I do that?dialogue should sound natural. Her words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Dot would use. I’ve seen countless stories where four year olds talk like they’re forty and forty year olds talk like robots. When Dot speaks, it can't be stilted or forced, and it shouldn't feel like she's just spouting out my opinions or political views or whatever.
The same goes for Dot’s actions, reactions, and motives. There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does. A reason that makes sense with everything we know about her or will come to know. If her motivations are erratic and just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick. If I find myself thinking (or shouting) “What are you doing?!” at a character, it’s a good sign their motivation isn’t believable
Also, please keep in mind that just because Dot is based on a real person who went through true events doesn’t automatically make her believable. Sometimes, believe it or not, it can make her seem even more contrived. I've talked here several times about the difference between reality and fiction, and it's where many aspiring writers stumble. Don’t forget, there’s no such thing as an "unbelievable true story"—only an unbelievable story.
Speaking of which, this first trait can be an immediate challenge for genre writers, yes? Werewolves aren’t believable because they’re not real. Neither are leprechauns. Nanotech cyborgs, aliens, ghosts, hive minds, demons, Santa Claus, Elder Gods, barbarians from the Ninth Realm of Shokar—we’ve pretty much proven all of these things are fictional, much as we might want some of them to be real. But, as I just mentioned, part of this trait is making them believable within the setting of the story.
Next, Dot needs to be relatable. As readers, we enjoy seeing similarities between ourselves and the characters we’re reading about. It lets us make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we'd like to happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives. It’s not a coincidence that most stories deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations. It’s hard for readers (or an audience) to enjoy a story when they can’t identify with the character on some level.
Part of this is me being aware how my readers are going to view and react to Dot. There needs to be something they can connect with. Almost all of us can relate to blue collar, middle class folks easier than multi-millionaire celebrities. I feel safe saying everyone reading this—or writing it—has been the victim of an awful break up or two. Very few of us have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin. Hopefully none of us.
This is also going to tie back to the idea of being believable. Dot’s actions and reactions, her motives and experiences, are a big part of what’s going to make her relatable. This is how the readers come to understand her. By the same token, the less believable or common a character element is, the less likely it is my readers will be able to relate to it. If I make Dot a reincarnated, retro-futurist one-percenter who eats nothing but snake hearts, speaks only in Babylonian metaphors, and firmly believes the lizard men are going to be returning to claim the world (and welcomes her new reptilian overlords)... well, it’s going to be a real challenge for my readers to identify with that. And if readers can't identify with Dot, why will they care what happens to her?
When Dot doesn’t have any character traits we can relate to, we’re no longer understanding her—we’re observing her. It’s an immediate wedge between the readers and the character, keeping them at arm’s length. And that separation is going to keep readers from getting caught up in my story.
Again, this isn’t to say characters can’t have amazing traits or abilities, but those can't be my focus. The most successful takes on Superman haven’t been the ones that focus on his godlike powers, they’ve been the ones that emphasize he’s still basically a guy who grew up in all-American, small-town Kansas. Jessica Jones may be able to punch through a wall, but her story is really about how she chooses to deal with her past—therapy groups, lots of drinking, and random sex with guys she barely knows. Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger is a trained and lethal warrior who still prefers to spend his time playing with his dog, wearing Hawaiian shirts, and enjoying burgers and beer. In my own book, The Fold, Mike may have one of the most amazing minds on the planet but he really just wants to fit in and be like everyone else.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dot has to be likeable. There has to be a reason we, as readers, want to follow her story and not his or hers or theirs. We have to like her. There should be elements to her we admire and maybe even envy a bit. We have to be somewhat invested in her accomplishing her goals and making it to the end of the story.
Keep in mind, likable can mean a lot of things. It can mean adorkable klutz but also fantastic work ethic. Maybe Dot has impeachable integrity. Maybe she takes care of every stray she finds. She could be really funny or perhaps she’s just always there when her friends need her. Or maybe she’s the one who just says what needs to be said and stands up for the little people, no matter the cost to her.
On the flipside, if she's morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain boring... well, what’s going to keep people reading? Nobody likes the person who kills babies or pets. We’re rarely interested in boring people (because none of us think we’re boring) and we don’t like stupid people (because none of us think we’re stupid). If this is how I’m characterizing Dot, nobody's going to read through a few hundred pages of her exploits. Or lack of exploits.
Again, this doesn't mean my character has to be a saint, or even a good person. In Doctor Sleep, we find out that Danny Torrance grew up to be a major, life-ruining alcoholic. Cat Grant on Supergirl is a ruthless, often cruel boss who can’t even be bothered to get her assistant’s name right. Sherlock Holmes has often been portrayed as curt and with very little patience for those he thinks are inferior to him (which is most people). Raymond Reddington is a ruthless “concierge of crime” who doesn’t hesitate to pull a trigger or stab someone in the back (figuratively or literally). We're still interested in them as characters, though, either because of underlying codes of honor or because they’re doing things we wish we could get away with. And because of this, we’re willing to follow them through their stories.
Now, I'm sure many of you reading this can list off a dozen or so examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits (someone probably skipped down to the comments after the first few paragraphs and started typing them up). It'd be silly for me to deny this. Overall, though, I think you'll find the people that don't have all three of these traits are usually supporting characters. They don't need all three of these traits because they aren't the focus of our attention. If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my word count or screen time on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Dot.
So, to sum up, a good character should be someone we'd like to be, at least for a little while. That's what great fiction is, after all. It's when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else's life. So it has to be a person--and a life-- we want to sink into. One we understand on some level or another. One we can believe in.
One we want to read about.
Next time, it being the season, I’d like to talk about Santa Claus.
Until then, go write.