This post is focused on a very important, if not the most important, aspect of your writers, your characters. Readers become invested in characters. They learn to love and/or hate characters. They sympathize and/or empathize with their flaws, quirks and events that shape them. Character development is both essential and difficult.
In this post, I hope to pull together some useful tips that I have tried to follow in my own writing or have learned from those that are respected and successful in the craft.
- Be consistent with what you call your characters – If you’re character’s name is John Doe, stick with calling him John or Mr. Doe or Johnny. But don’t alternate or you will confuse your readers. I actually broke this rule in my first book, Frankly Speaking, and in it’s subsequent related books, I have a character named Clifford Jones, III. He is an attorney, hacker, financial adviser and surf shop owner. His friends call him “Jonesy”, but he doesn’t let just anyone call him that. This means that, in dialogue where he is first meeting a character, they call him “Mr. Jones” until they earn enough of his trust, if ever, to call him “Jonesy”. It’s a minor bending of this principle and I’m good with it.
- Give your characters names with subtle meaning – If everyone in your book is named Mr. Smith or Mr. Doe, the reader may take this as a sign of bland writing. Of course, the other extreme is giving your characters ridiculous names. If your hero is named Stud Steelmucscle or something like that, your readers may not take you seriously. Of course, both of these rules have been broken. In the right context, that is perfectly fine. In my detective series, I gave my main character the name, Frank Rozzani. Rozzani is a name that is close to my own last name and fits in my ethnicity which allowed me to explore familiar territory in my storytelling. The name ‘Frank ‘ has become a double-edged sword as I have used it in the titles of the first five books: Frankly Speaking, Let Me Be Frank, Frank Incensed, Frankly, My Dear and Frank Immersed. Hopefully, I have not painted myself in a corner. I have at least 5-8 more ‘Frank’ titles in reserve. I just have to be story not to write the story to fit the title.
“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”
― Joss Whedon
- Who the characters are – Some books go charging into action without establishing who the character is or why they’re taking the actions being described. This is a perfectly fine way to immerse your reader into a story, but don’t string them along for a long time without giving them little tidbits of information. You will lose them if your character seems reckless without cause.
- Stereotypes or stock characters – The terrorist of a certain ethnicity, the evil genius, the crusty old retired policeman; do they sound familiar? They should. They are often overused in what we read. Readers might think your story copying something they’ve read previously. That’s not to say that you can’t use some aspects of these characters, just don’t load your story with them.
- Too many characters – Some authors can pull this off. Read The Stand by Stephen King or The Lord of the Rings trilogy and you will have more characters than you can shake a stick at. These are exceptions. Too many characters means that you may not be developing them fully. You can try combining multiple characters or eliminating one or two. Not even Tom Bombadil made the movies.
- Extraneous characters – I know I’ve been guilty of introducing a character and then never using them again for the rest of the book. My editor will rip them out and remind me that they are not necessary. I sometimes have people ask me to write them into a book. In one instance I wrote someone into the book as the person in charge of conducting body cavity searches. I don’t get that request much any more.
This post told you about some of the problems of characterization. How do we fix them? I’m deferring this to another post because I want to hear your ideas on this topic. I certainly don’t know everything or even much of anything. Let’s share our experiences.