Four Rules for Fully-Formed Characters


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So how are your characters doing? Everybody doing well? Yes? Hmm, that’s a problem. While things going smoothly and everyone liking everyone else is great in real life, in writing it’s a one-way ticket to Boringtown with no layovers. How do you avoid the Boringtown Express? Here are four suggestions.

1. You’ve got to torture your babies. But let’s be clear: only your fictional ones. Do not torture real babies, it’s just not nice. Back to characters. Yes, part of the fun of writing is escaping into this lovely–or not-so-lovely–world you’ve created. But if your characters don’t have problems, if the worst never happens to them, your story goes absolutely nowhere. A story is a journey, and your characters have to take it, or they can’t grow.

2. Your characters can’t be good at everything. You’ve seen this character in books and in movies, the one who has a skill for every occasion. Sometimes that pan-adeptness is fueled by the plot, but most of the time, it’s simple fantasy fulfillment on the part of the writer. Take yourself out of your work to get some objective distance from your character. Is there a reason your character has that skill? Does your character have a background that supports her knowing that information? Weak spots make characters, and your plot, interesting. Without them, you risk veering into caricature.

3. Your characters can’t be liked by everyone. If you don’t pay attention to this one, you’ll be heading straight to Mary Sue or Marty Stu territory. Every real person has idiosyncrasies, and sometimes they rub people the wrong way. Your characters should be as rounded as real people, and that means that not everyone is going to like them, want to help them, or even much care about them. Sometimes the character flaws are vital to your plot; sometimes they simply give depth to your made-up humans. Either way, just as they say there’s someone for everyone, there’s also someone who isn’t so into everyone.

4. Your characters have to show some growth. This one might be a controversial, but it’s essential to why you are showing the reader this chunk of your character’s life. If your character is not changed by his experience, then make that a deliberate choice, as that, too, can say much about character.

Have a minute? Watch this video.

Rather read? Check out  Her Cousin Much Removed,  The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only) .

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