Good God, where does one start? Characters are the lifeblood of a novel. You must have them or a novel cannot exist. Think about it. Even if you’re writing about the wind, the wind itself becomes a character. You cannot write a novel without them or at least him (or her). Otherwise you’re not telling a story but just trying to prove that you’re clever. I’d call that pretentious. And obnoxious.
The reader wants to relate to the story you’re trying to tell, and the way the reader accomplishes that is through the characters. Gosh, but where to go from here? OK, a quick generalization: you must make your main characters--that is your hero and heroine in a romance--likable. Or at least have the hope of becoming likable by the end. Because the main character, especially the heroine (let’s face it, most of our novels are read by women), is the vessel through which the reader experiences the novel. If the reader cannot identify with or recognize themselves in or understand or just plain admire your main characters, what reason do they have to finish your novel?
Unfortunately likability is hard to define. Personally I like egg-head characters, the absent-minded professor types. I even wrote one, only to have a reviewer give me a bad review because she hates that kind of person. As is her right. We have our own personal tastes, our own criteria for choosing friends and lovers. Good thing too. Otherwise there would be very few happily married couples out there.
But likability itself isn’t necessarily the factor that makes a novel successful. Take Scarlett O’Hara. Yes, she has traits we can admire, but I wouldn’t want her as friend. And yet GWTW is great because of Scarlett. And if you another example of where likability plays a contrary role in characterization, read THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD by Agatha Christie. I won’t say anything else about the novel except that she was both reviled and praised for this novel, and she changed the mystery genre forever with this book.
Character is the person doing the actions; characterization is the traits given to that person. You must focus on the characterization to make rounded, well-formed characters. Just by nature of the beast, a fictional character cannot have as many facets as real person (such a feat, I propose, is an impossibility), but your characters should have enough sides to bring him/her to life in a novel, to let your reader believe they could be reading about a real person. They must be three dimensional, not static; they should grow during the course of the novel (ask yourself, “What have they learned?”); they should have faults. Ack, don’t make your characters perfect. Perfection is not only unbelievable, but it can also come off as arrogant, and often boring. Really. If your characters are perfect, they don’t make mistakes. And then where’s your conflict? (That’s next week, folks).
You can, of course, chart out each of your characters: what is their eye color, hair color, height, etc (always useful if you need to refer to them through out the book, and you will, and don’t wish to have your heroine change from having blue eyes in one scene to having green in the next). You can ascribe an entire history to them: where they attended school, what traumas affected their childhoods, what their favorite Christmas present was; etc.; stuff that may never appear in your book, but might help you understand your character better. You can find character interviews all over the Internet. Whatever helps you to create characters that come alive is what you need to use.
And we can’t forget the other characters in your book, namely the villain and the secondary characters. You should take as much time making your villain realistic as your main characters. Or almost. Personally I like the over-the-top villain: the Voldemorts, the Darth Vaders, the Wicked Witches of the West. But even these characters were given some sort of backstory to make their evil understandable. Heck, the Wicked Witch was given her own book(1) and Darth was given three whole movies(2). And if you’re anything like I am, your secondary characters take on a life of their own. I literally had to kick one of my characters off an island because she was taking over the book. I love secondary characters. Think of them as the character actors. So often they steal the scene from the leads. Like Spike in NOTTING HILL or Alfred in the Dark Knight.
One last little thing: it’s fun to give your characters a quirk to set them apart, be that a fear, a habit, some odd little hobby that makes your readers smile or at least remember your characters. Everybody knows and remembers that Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, that Ron Weasley hates spiders. In my upcoming story, THE WISH LIST (May 2010), my heroine eats chocolate chipless cookies--that’s right, chocolate chip cookies without chocolate chips.
There is so much more to characters than what I possibly can write in a blog. So go explore on your own. Find out what you want your characters to do and learn. Give them personality and faults. And don’t forget to let them fall in love. You are writing a romance, after all.
Books I’m reading now:
Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James
The Highwayman by Michele Hauf
What Happens in London by Julia Quinn
1 In the original book, the Witch is chasing Dorothy because she murdered her sister and now she wants the silver slippers, not a very original reason, but a reason nonetheless ; the book WICKED followed decades after the original and gave a whole new history to the Wicked Witch. I’ll let you decide if Maguire succeeded.
2 The supposed “first three” episodes of STAR WARS are all backstory. I won’t give my over opinion here, but we as writers know what too much backstory does to a novel. And I love STAR WARS (the original three).