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Pro Am Tips #5

May 12, 2015

Character.

It’s all about the characters. Are they tall? Short? What color is their hair? Do they limp? Have scars? Are they orphans? Are they secretly gay? Are they openly gay? Are they straight but keep getting hit on by their own sex? Do they have a lot of payments left on their cars? Their houses? Do they like vanilla or chocolate more? What do they do int he bathroom? Do they read? Or stare at the wall? Do the male characters sit down to pee? Do the female ones stand up?

None of this tripe matters unless you answer the most important question in the world:

 

WHY?

A character, no matter whether they have one line in your story or all the lines in your book, is ever a minor character. Do you want to write excellent characters? Remember this:

No one is a minor character in their own story.

Every single person in every single thing you write MUST have their own story, their own lives, their own reason for doing what they do. You have to know all of your characters. You don’t need to write everything down, or even create a biography for every minor thug you write, or every passer-by on the street, but you DO need to know and REMEMBER that they’re all the star of their own story.

It may be an interesting story. It may be a boring story. It may be a terrible one or a great one.

One-note characters pull a reader out of a story faster than an oncoming car pulls you out of a reverie on the highway. A poor character is a train wreck, it’s a full stop. It’s the fourth wall shattering, revealing a message to the reader, and that message is “This writer is terrible.”

That’s okay. Every writer is terrible. Some are terrible on a regular basis. Some are terrible only in one scene in their book. Some are terrible only in one or two books in their career. More likely, you’re the kind of writer who’s terrible on a daily basis- because that’s 99.99% of all of us.

Be less terrible at character by remembering that they’re not there to sing for YOUR supper. They’re doing their job. The coroner’s assistant that carries the body away from your crime scene? Maybe he moonlights as a bartender in a fancy bar uptown. Maybe he plays tuba in an ad-hoc band. Maybe he’s a jewel thief by night.

This might or might not come up in your book, story, or whatever you’re writing. But when you feel more about a character, it’ll come through. You won’t just make her assistant coroner number two, carrying away a body- you’ll make her Caroline, the coroner who used to be a hand model and who now works on broadway as a makeup girl, because the cross-over skillset of making up actors on a stage and preparing bodies for a viewing in a funeral home are surprisingly similar.

That faceless walk-on becomes a person. You can’t ignore a person. You just can’t. It’s not right. It’s cruel. You have to make her live. And when she lives, your writing becomes more fluid, and expanded, and all kinds of things they have technical words for that don’t really matter, but which I prefer to call ‘un-terrible’.

When all of your characters live and breathe, even if they aren’t big, on-stage characters, they will react with your big, on-stage characters differently. You’ve all seen that walk-on by an actor who’s obviously filling in as background in your favorite tv show. They look out of place, because they’re not a character, they’re a person pretending to be more than a cardboard cutout.

Characters, ALL of them, are people, in your world. You don’t write about cardboard people. Write about real ones. Give them life, and purpose, and things to do, because there are no people who are minor characters in their own story.

In their own story, they’re the main character. They’re moving through your work on the way to their own story. Treat them as such, and I guarantee your writing will be much better.

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