Why Character is the most important fiction element

The editing checklist I presented last time is written in order of importance according to me. Other editors will disagree about what is the most important aspect of a novel. I put Character at the top of the list because the characters, especially the viewpoint characters, are how the reader experiences the story. Readers become attached to them and will root for them to achieve their goals.

But only if the characters are sympathetic.

Some genres differ on this point. Readers of thrillers and horror and some crime fiction will stick with a fascinating plot even if the characters are a bit two-dimensional. And readers of literary fiction will put up with unpleasant protagonists and wafer-thin plots as long as you give them scintillating language to enjoy.

character development

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But you will lose most fiction readers if your characters are too vapid or unpleasant.

Some writing coaches will tell you that your characters must be “likable.” We discussed the importance of the likable protagonist once before. There, I also talked about how to handle it if your protagonist, like Scarlett O’Hara or Ebenezer Scrooge, isn’t likable.

How Character intersects with Plot

I advise starting with your characters because how they react to the events of the story will affect the outcome of the plot. If Scarlett O’Hara had been a coward, she’d have fled the South and let Tara go to ruin. So sometimes you’ll have story objectives and will need to build the necessary qualities into your character. Other times, you’ll have a character quality—Scarlett’s flirtatiousness, for example–that will lead to plot complications. For more on how Character influences Plot—and vice versa—see Jeff Gerke’s Plot Versus Character.

Depending on the state your characters are currently in, you may need to spend some time prewriting before you dig deep into editing. You’ve done your read-through; now examine your characters closely. In Writing Fiction For Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy call this “Psychoanalyzing Your Characters.” Are most (I would never hold you to all) of the statements on the checklist true of your characters? If not, brainstorm some ways to bring in these elements, and think about the scenes you’ve already written that could be modified to clarify their personalities.

Next time, we’ll look at the items of the Character element in detail.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One thought on “Why Character is the most important fiction element

  1. […] Last time we looked at the importance of great characters in fiction. Now, let’s break down the points in the Character segment of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. […]

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