Finer points of character development

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.

Principal characters are well-rounded and realistic.

The goal here is to avoid one-note characters. Remember that people have multiple interests. Sherlock Holmes, for example, plays the violin. What do your characters do when they’re not saving the world?

Another thing to avoid is the totally perfect hero. Readers will just be annoyed by the character who overcomes every obstacle without mussing her hair. A realistic hero is flawed or wounded in some way: physically, emotionally, or spiritually. The story can and should help him heal this flaw.

Strive for character motivations that are realistic. We tend to let this slide with villains, but I think that’s a mistake. The villain who does evil for evil’s sake is a worn-out trope. Consider that one of the most engaging villains in literature is Javert in Les Miserables. His motivation is the pursuit of justice. What makes him a villain instead of a hero is that his idea of justice is focused on the letter of the law and has no room in it for mercy.

Javert is a negative example of how a character’s values can be reflected in his ambitions. A positive example might be a person who values his family, and then winds up in conflict with his boss for not working overtime. What does your character believe in?

© Mopic -
© Mopic –

The main character’s story goal is clear.

Howard Ashman, the lyricist of The Little Mermaid and other musicals, once said he used songs like “Part of Your World” to show what the heroine wants early on, knowing that will inspire the audience to spend the rest of the show rooting for her to get it.

Ideally, a story goal is objective, worthwhile, and achievable—without being easy. For example, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Luke’s goal is to leave his boring homeworld and fight the rebel alliance.

Ideally the storygoal will be tied to the character’s values. It’s one thing to know what they want—but we also want to know why.

Secondary characters are distinctive and memorable.

Your principals aren’t the only ones who should be well-rounded. Complex secondary characters add depth. There’s no point agonizing over the backstory and motivation of every spear carrier, but supporting characters who spend significant time in the story should not be interchangeable. If you can give dialog from one to another without rewriting, that’s not a good sign. Give them unique personalities and character traits.

The number of characters is appropriate to the genre.

Casts of thousands work in epic history or fantasy stories, not so much in cozy mysteries or romance. This is one more reason it’s wise to read other works in your genre. You need to know what the conventions and expectations are.

Characters have distinctive names that are suitable to the genre and setting.

In a contemporary novel, you could name your character Britney. In an Old West historical…no.

Ensure that older characters have names that would have been plausible in the year they were born, and that if a younger character has an old-fashioned name, that a plausible reason is given, for example, she was named after an ancestor.

A good site for finding names and checking their historical use is Behind the Name.

Make sure characters’ names won’t be confused with one another. Putting Devon and Darin or Molly and Dolly in the same story is Not Recommended.

We fantasy writers often run into trouble because we dream up unfamiliar and hard-to-pronounce pronounce names that readers struggle with. Minimize this as much as you can within the constraints of your storyworld, and provide a pronunciation key at the end of the book. Fantasy readers love that stuff.

One of the hazards of historical fiction is that if any of your characters are real people, you won’t be able to do anything about them having similar names. I can’t tell a writer working on a World War II novel that characters named Goebbels and Goering are too similar. Readers will just have to deal with it. But they will thank you for including a character list, and pronunciation guides often come in handy in that genre also.

Next time we’ll look at continuity and story arcs.

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