Thursday, 16 May 2013

Content Of Your Character

There’s no point having a story by the end of which the reader will know who your main character is and what he’s about.

You may think that the purpose of the story is to reveal this and that’s it’s intriguing for the reader not to be too sure where a character’s loyalties lie. That would be wrong.

Did you have a good idea of what kind of person Harry was before he got to Hogwart’s? Did you have a reasonable idea about Katniss before she got to the games?

The initial part of a story is to tell the reader the character’s values and beliefs. Once things kick off, then it’s time to test those values and beliefs.

In some cases both of these can be conflated into one. Thrillers and other stories where we start in the middle of things. Or the character may be of a type that is easy to recognise and understand (the obsessed cop, the woman who really wants a baby).

In the Jack Reacher novels we are often given a list of the main’s character’s achievements and awards while he was in the army, and this gives you a pretty good idea of who he is in a very short space, but mostly it helps slot him into a particular pigeonhole. 

Some genres actively welcome this sort of clichéd characterisation (although 'archetypes' might be a kinder way of putting it), but a little more complexity is also a good thing.

Whatever it is you tell the reader about your character in the early part of the book, it’s important that it directly plays a part in the story that unfolds. There’s no point having a woman who’s afraid of the dark and rescues abandoned cats if the story is about her deciding to become a race car driver.

It may seem like a way of making a character feel more than just two dimensional to give them diverse interests and an unclear, more ‘realistic’ narrative. That would be wrong, too.

A contrived as it might feel, the whole point of giving a character a particular viewpoint is to bend it to breaking point. Creating a vague, wishy-washy feeling (life-like as it may appear) is annoying to read. But much easier to write, which is why it often appeals.

In Rosemary’s Baby, we start with Rosemary and her husband house hunting. What we get is an indication of how much Rosemary wants to settle down and start a family. Her desire for that will be put to the test when she gets her wish, a baby. Meanwhile, her husband, an actor, is shown as a consummate liar as he wangles them out of a contract for one place so they can move into their dream home. This trait of her husband’s is also used to test her (worth noting that since she’s the MC, it’s her testing that interests us, not his).

What do your characters stand for? What are their values and guiding principles? What do they believe in?

And more importantly, when is it clear to the reader.

Your first chapter, your first scene, should be about this. No matter what the actual events, how the character handles things should give the reader a strong indication of what they’re about, and those same core beliefs and behaviour should be brought into play throughout the rest of the book.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey, something I actually did right!

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

Oh Rosemary's Baby. What a creepy example to use. That story is almost as horrifying as the real life story of the director who made it, Roman Polanski. *shivers

mooderino said...

@Alex - I'm guessing doing right is habit with you.

@Michael - now there's a real character.

Mel Chesley said...

Good post and even better advice. :D

mooderino said...

@Mel - thanks.

Donna Hole said...

Food for thought.


Wendy aka Quillfeather said...

Excellent post. Sorry my comment is so lame!

Sarah Chafin said...

I think I've been doing this for the most part but it was nice to read something that made me feel like my story is going in the right direction. Thanks for sharing.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Hmm, a writing challenge... the journey from crazy old cat lady to winning the Grand Prix. It could happen.

Elise Fallson said...

This is exactly what I needed to read. I'm working on a new project and fiddling with chapter one. Your post clearly defines the goals of what I need to do and what I want to do within the first 15 pages of the book. Merci Moody. (:

Gina Gao said...

This is such a great post! I liked the advice you've given.

nutschell said...

ooh great tips! I revise my first chapters twice as much as I do the others:) Never head of Rosemary's Baby. I should check it out.

Patricia Lynne said...

Great post. I'll have to go look at my first chapters and put this knowledge to use.

mooderino said...

@Donna - I'm eating a cookie right now.

@Wendy - not lame at all, glad to know you found it useful.

@Sarah - yvw

@Charmaine - Could certainly happen. Although driving with cats in the car would be a little tricky.

mooderino said...

@Elise - de rien.

@Gina - thanks.

@Nutschell - rosemary's baby is a great book and not a bad movie either.

@Patricia - cheers.

Anonymous said...


Just wanted to say hello and let you know I nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. The details are here:

Have a great day!



mooderino said...

@tonette - thanks very much. Will pop over and collect it.

John Wiswell said...

Cliche and archetype differ based upon frequency of usage and application. If a character is little more than either, though, I don't care if the author got me to know them. There is a heavy chance that I will give up on a book that uses them too much. Ironically, it can be severely better to only know a few salient things about a character - like the girl's obsession with freckles in A Visit from the Good Squad - than to know all of who they are. It depends where you'll take your story.

mooderino said...

@John - I don't think it helps to know everything about them, but to know where they're coming from helps a lot. said...

Great post!

Mark Harley said...

Great post.i really like your content and whta you want to say.keep blogging.Thnaks for sharing such a nice post.content writing

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