13 Things You Should Have Known About Your Characters Beforehand

  1. Are your heroine/hero and villain related? Closely? Are they, in fact, siblings or, maybe, parent & child? Because if they are, you’re going to have a lot of trouble explaining your idea of parenting.
  2. Do your characters care about the dilemma you’ve given them? Passionately? Desperately? Enough to carry both them and your reader through 72,000 words on the edge of their seats? Or are they actually thinking about that ticket they booked to Bermuda back last winter before they read up on the hurricane season and wondering whether they can sell it on eBay when the time comes. . .and maybe even make a killing. . .wait—who are you, and why are you so annoying?
  3. How many of them are there? Do you even know? Proust put over 2,000 people into Remembrance of Things Past. Guess what? Nobody can name them. Nobody remembers what they’re there for. Nobody knows what was important to them and why it matters to anyone. This is why nobody’s read all seven volumes. (Except a small but elite cadre in San Francisco who hold a Proust Wake every year, most of whom actually lie about whether or not they’ve read his work, themselves.)
  4. Do you like your protagonist? A lot? A WHOLE LOT? Almost infinitely? Because you’re stuck with them almost infinitely longer than your reader is. Agatha Christie grew to hate Poirot, just as Conan Doyle got tired to death of Sherlock Holmes, but they made the huge blunder of being popular authors and got stuck with them forever. Don’t make the same mistake.
  5. Can your characters recognize the dividing line between likeably inept and sadly hopeless? between hilariously dark and simply unpleasant? between intriguingly naive and boring? Because your reader can.
  6. How many facets do your characters have and what distinguishes them from each other? ANYTHING?
  7. Which ones are just entertaining duplicates of each other? How are you going to merge them into single individuals with a lot of contrasting traits that make a weird kind of sense when they’re all put together?
  8. Which ones are dull as ditch-water? Uh-huh.
  9. Do your characters have the foggiest idea what they’re doing in your book? Or are they just sitting around waiting for you to enlighten them? Are they going to do anything about it when you do? Or are they going to pat their yawns and goggle at you politely?
  10. When they talk, do they say interesting things? Because if they don’t, don’t let them talk. I mean it.
  11. Do they have imaginative ideas about how to handle trouble and strife? Do they have the cojones to follow through on them? When trapped beneath a falling elevator, will they scream and bang helplessly on the walls, go into a fetal position, have a bad underwear day, or grab the upward cable and be yanked, yodeling like Tarzan, skyward and through a conveniently cracked door? Or will they, in a bizarre but inevitable twist, suffer a cosmic visitation that will have your reader looking askance at elevator shafts for the rest of their natural born days?
  12. What the hell do your characters NEED? Because if you don’t know this, you don’t have a story at all.
  13. Finally, is your villain really your heroine/hero? Yeah—I know. Caught you with your pants down, didn’t they? Again.

8 thoughts on “13 Things You Should Have Known About Your Characters Beforehand

  1. SG Redling says:

    Great post and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m starting a new series that could go on a while. I’m taping this up over my work area and grilling each character as they come in. Thanks!

  2. I think I’ll hold my WIP up against this list. Excellent points!

  3. Janet Lane says:

    yodeling like Tarzan – you make even mundane topics amusing. Thanks for the laughs. Excellent point about taping their mouths shut, LOL!

  4. Jeffrey Russell says:

    I certainly don’t have 2,000 characters in my story. I do have a few characters, however, who play small, yet helpful roles in moving the story forward, but do not grow or change in any significant way. I worry about these characters. I need them for plot purposes, and they do form a static and steady background against which the struggles and conflicts of main characters are drawn, but I worry about them nevertheless. Does every character need a conflict?

  5. Kathryn says:

    I suspected as much. My characters are out to get me!

  6. Victoria says:

    Thanks, you guys! I’m so pleased to meet you new folks—SG, Jen, Janet.

    Jeffrey, I’ll put your question in the questions file for the advice column and answer it as soon as I get through the original batch.

    Kathryn, I’m afraid everyone is out to get you. In fact, your characters have been having a word with me about it.

  7. Lady Glamis says:

    Great points! I’m loving this so far, and your sense of humor is always a joy. 🙂

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