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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.