Author G.B. Pool gives us the scoop on writing memorable characters. Visit Gayle’s Author Page on Amazon!
Character Matters: Your Main Characters Attract Readers, Make Them Memorable
Aristotle wrote in The Poetics that stories are made up of 5 Elements in balance: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue, and the Meaning of the Piece. He thought plot was the most important element, but I wanted to talk about character in this blog.
As in most crime fiction, there is always a bad guy or gal. Some writers want to give the villain a good point like he loves dogs or his mother. I seldom bother. I paint him bad with no redeeming features unless there are extenuating circumstances and my bad guy isn’t so bad after all. In fact once or twice the bad guy has a soul. But usually in a story like that, he or she is actually the star of the piece.
But when I write a main character, I want him or her to be someone I would invite into my home. After all, I spend a lot of time with these characters while I am reading not only my own books but books by other writers. If I find them repulsive, mean, heartless, I really resent the time spent getting to know them. On more than one occasion the character has been written by a famous author and I frankly think the character stinks. That will also be the last time I read one of their books.
Aristotle mentioned that characters should have some redeeming quality. I do reserve those good qualities for the hero and other important characters. The bad guy can be bad to the bone as far as I am concerned.
Another thing Aristotle mentioned was that all the characters should be appropriate to their station in life. I am sure when he wrote The Poetics
there was far more of a class system operating. Even in Downton Abbey
, the folks living above stairs have a different attitude than the ones living below stairs. Not that this is right or wrong, it was just what society at that time and place was like. I’ll root for the rebel, but I would still be cognizant of the time period in which the story was being told.
There was a movie, The Admirable Crichton, where a shipwreck strands a bunch of aristocrats and their butler on a desert island. The resourceful butler saves everyone with his ingenuity. When the bunch is rescued, he reverts back to the butler and life went on.
But if the writer is true to the inherent abilities of his characters, the story will work. A housewife who miraculously knows everything about solving crime has been watching too much CSI. And a cop will tell you many of the procedures on those police shows are laughingly wrong.
Dick Francis will have his main character who is expert in some interesting thing like wine making or photography, use his skills to solve a crime. That I can believe. If he turns into a latter-day MacGyver and can make a nuclear weapon out of a box of matches and a can of hairspray, sorry, NO SALE.
Just keep your character consistent. If he hates height, make something payoff in the end that uses that fear of heights like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo. I keep a character chart that lists when each was born, when certain things happened in his life, and even things that happened during that time in history just to know what people were exposed to.
I started doing this while I was taking an acting class. What a great way to learn about a tight story structure, dialogue, and character. My teacher, Rudy Solari, had us write a mini-biography of our own character so we would know where the character came from and what motivated him or her before he or she set foot on the stage. We could glean some things from the script and make up the rest, but you sure know who you were when the scene started.
This works for writing characters, too. When I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook series I wrote out a bio for Johnny. Boy did I learn a lot about him. There were even some things that came out in the second book that even Johnny didn’t know. It made him more interesting.
Know your character. Character matters.
16 thoughts on “Character Matters: Your Main Characters Attract Readers, Make Them Memorable”
Yes, yes, yes! Gayle, couldn't agree more how important characters are. Like the thought the protagonist is someone you'd want to invite into your home–and in my mind, someone you'd like to know better. I guess that's part of the point, a reader wants to also know them better. And cares about what they do and what happens to them. Thought provoking post…
What a great post! I love how you flaunt current thinking about characterization and make it work so well in your books. And your humor makes this post memorable in a way “preaching” wouldn't. Your experience in acting classes (writing a bio) has certainly paid of in your characterizing your book heroes and villains too. Thanks for sharing. Good job!
Great post, especially about no redeeming trait for the bad guy.
Madeline, Your characters are always so memorable. I figured that you used the same philosophy.
Jackie, I thought Aristotle made such good points; I just incorporated them into my style, even though I think I am funnier…
Sue, Some writers want to have at least one redeeming quality in their antagonist, but if I put one in, I want to make sure in the end everybody knows he or she was a hypocrite. After all, they are usually cold blooded killers.
Excellent post, Gayle! I never thought of wanting to invite a protagonist into my home, but the idea makes perfect sense.
Alice, I have found this the case in newer books. Some writers create characters that are totally unlikable… and these are their protagonists. When I can't root for anybody, I don't want to read the book.
Too true, Gayle. Characters must be more than puppets acting out our stories; they must live fully and have the identifiable human traits with which we can sympathize and bond. I can identify with Johnny Casio and Jack Reacher, even though I am not now nor ever have been a tough guy – or in fact a guy at all. But they both pull me into their lives with likable aspects and make me do more than root for them. I wish I knew them for real.
Great post, Gayle!
Great piece, Gayle. Especially about making the characters consistent.
Paul, When the writer knows his character well, it comes across in the book. You do that even in a short story. That is talent, my friend.
Kate, I have to say your Cookie Sullivan is tough enough for any guy. You capture the character in spades.
Gayle, The work you put into your characters really pays off. Johnny Casino is my all-time favorite Private Eye (although Eddie Buick is a close second) and it is so important to make readers like, and therefore care about, your protagonist. When I first workshopped my novel Mending Dreams, you may remember that several people did not like Susan. That was a real eye-opener for me, and it took some work to give her redeeming traits at the get-go. But I grew to like her so much, I actually missed her when I finished the novel. Is that part of why you write serial novels–so you don't have to say good-bye to Johnny and Gin?
Bonnie, When I wrote my first Johnny Casino story I wrote a stream of conscious piece that told me a lot about him. Then I wrote a long biography to explain an aspect of his life I wanted to affirm. I learned even more about him. Now I know him so well, I never want to let him go. The same with Ginger. There will be no killing off my friends.
Like Madeline, the idea of creating a main character you'd want to invite into your home really caught me. We do spend so much time with our protagonists and if we expect the readers to embrace them, we must be able to as well.
I figure if you take a book to bed, you really want to do it with a character you don't mind getting under the covers with…