Being a Better Writer: Character Matters

So, last week I was browsing the web (one of my favorite pastimes for finding interesting details and acquiring knowledge) when I came across a very … shall we say, interesting post. It was on a book forum, where someone was, if I recall the context correctly, talking about a specific Sci-Fi book they tried to read. A recent award winner, again if I recall correctly, from one of those snooty ‘literary’ awards. Anyway, they mentioned that they’d tried reading it, but had given up because, as they explained, all the characters fell flat. Or rather, were flat, simply mouthpieces to explain the story’s science. They had no other character or uniqueness other than a name. They were just there as, well, robots, to drive the science forward. Other than that, they were simply flat caricatures. As a result, the reader had given up on the book, because there was no character to revolve around.

Now, this post jumped out at me for two reasons. The first, but not the foremost, was that it lined up with a news article I recall reading a few years ago about in which a major publisher, faced with the falling sales of their Sci-Fi and Fantasy, conducted a nationwide survey of their former readers (no idea how they pulled that off, but they have to have some metric for it) asking why their former readers had abandoned them. The answer? That too many of their books just didn’t have good characters anymore, or worse, had characters that were just ideological mouthpieces for the science/social angle of the book. Without strong, compelling, or real characters, their readers had abandoned them.

The second reason that this post jumped out at me was the response to it. This was on a forum that is … Well, let’s just say they’re the kind of readers that the current publishers want to have in greater number. The response was immediate and, shockingly, angry. We’re talking caps and exclamation marks about how dare this reader put down a book because the characters weren’t good. Because—and understand I’m summarizing a number of posts here—characters aren’t important. They’re just mouthpieces to present the science. You’re not supposed to care about them. Or find them interesting. If you do, that’s a bonusnot a requirement. Blah blah blah, you read the book for the message, not for the characters, who cares if they’re shallow, etc etc etc.

Reading over this led me to this post. Where I’m going to say something flat-out.

That stance? That characters don’t matter? It’s wrong. From start to finish. This isn’t even a matter of opinion. That’s why the survey sprang to mind. That survey said that people do care about characters, that people are invested in how characters act and why. And do you know why?

Because they are! Great characters make stories come to life! They sell stories. Not science or social messages. Those can be pandered anyone in a deadpan monotone and still find their audience of those already subscribed to the idea. But a story? That takes characters.

Let me make an analogy out of this. Do you remember being a student? What teachers do you remember that really taught their topic well? Can you think of any? Now, can you think of why they taught the topic well? I’d venture a guess that on some level, it was because they were invested. They were engaged. And by being engaged in the material, they made it more interesting and engaged the students. As compared to the teacher who would just sit there and read a textbook, or recite in base monotone their material.

You see the comparison here. Books without well-written characters, on in which the characters are just mouthpieces to “move the science along?” Those are boring. They’re deadpan teachers droning out data at someone. Sure, it might be interesting data (or not) … but either way the delivery isn’t going to do it any favors.

So yeah, if someone tells you that a book doesn’t need well-written or interesting characters to be good, well … If they’re talking about fiction, then they are wrong. Just wrong. There’s no other way around this. If you’re writing fiction, you need your characters to be well-written and interesting. You need them to be real. Doing otherwise is like having a movie that is actually a bunch of actors sitting in a circle telling you about the film, rather than having the film. And for no greater evidence of that, just look at the difference between the film 12 Angry Men and what it would be if the actors just sat there and explained the story.

See? One’s a fascinating drama, the other is just … bland, even in description. But the only difference is one is full of character.

Now, before I shift gears into the second half of this post, I want to cover something quite clearly suggested by this whole “Oh, characters don’t matter” ideology. So we have this idea that the focus of a work of fiction should be on political, social, and/or scientific ideas, and that characters are just “supposed to be” a mouthpiece for those ideas. Inversely, by the way this “suggestion” is made—and I mean the the idea is presented, rather than the loud caps and yelling—hints that the inverse must be true. That a book cannot be about social/political/scientific ideas if it’s about characters.

This. Is. Not. True. Not in the slightest. Your story can still be rife with social ideas, political ideas, scientific ideas—the works—and still be centered around fascinating, interesting characters.

But … I think there is a reason that people pushing this “theory” on people still voice it. Because when your characters aren’t mouthpieces, but compelling, interesting characters, it’s a lot harder to be blunt with the ideology, the “message” the story may revolve around. And for some people out there today, people that believe “message fiction” is the way to go, that’s a no-no.

Look, your story can still have ideas and concepts and explore them while being full of interesting characters. But because these are fleshed out, developed characters, they’re going to bring with it … Well, let’s call it uncertainty. Multiple sides of an issue. Because they’re going to be human.

In other words, a story with well-written characters is going to have those characters be human. They might get details wrong. Or have their own biases and approaches to ideas and concepts. In other words, where a mouthpiece will simply look right at the reader and say “And this is the message, and if you don’t agree with it, you’re a tool!” a character will sit there in uncertainty and say “Well, this is what I know, and what I’m trying to work with.”

The result is that a mouthpiece fiction tells the reader what to think, while a character fiction can give the reader new tools to think about something or introduce them to an issue while still leaving the conclusion up to them. And I think this difference is why some are really saying that “characters don’t matter.” Because a story that presents a reader with tools to think about an idea or multiple viewpoints is, to them, an anathema. They want to tell the reader what conclusion to come to, rather than give them tools and (gasp!) opposing sides to something.

Okay, that’s all I’m saying on that. I promised I’d shift gears, and I’m sticking to that. I just wanted to make it clear that despite the suggestion made by this stance that “character doesn’t matter, ideas/science/politics do,” you can have a work of fiction with wonderful characters and ideas. These are not mutually exclusive (though the fact that some are suggesting they are at all may say a lot about those falling Sci-Fi/Fantasy sales with the big publishers … just food for thought).

So, shifting gears. We’ve talked about why well-written characters are important. Now let’s dive into what most of you were likely thinking the moment you started this piece: How do you do that? After all, if well-written characters are so important, than you’d best have them in your books, right? But how do you do that?

I’ve written a lot on this before (just search the tags for “development and growth” or “characters” to find dozens of articles on the topic), so I don’t think I need to retread those today. What I do want to do instead is talk about something else I see happening when people dive down the rabbit hole of well-written characters. Specifically, what qualifies as a well-written character and when.

Some of you are probably thinking “Huh?” right about now, so let me give an example. Have you ever opened up a book and started reading, only to learn everything … or close to it, anyway, about the main character in the first chapter or first few pages? You get their quirks, their needs, their wants. Yes, they’re a full-fledged character, and they’re relatable and real, so it’s not that they aren’t bad. But they’re thrust upon us from the get go with very little held back?

I’ve seen this happen a lot, and often I feel that it’s a backlash—unintentional and preventative—to the idea of “I need a well-developed character. A writer hears it, reads about it, understands it … and then immediately goes to work on delivering it, and does so first and foremost so that they can “hook the reader in.”

But the thing is, while this approach isn’t bad or wrong, it also is … How to put this? It’s like … the most obvious solution. The first thing that comes to mind. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to draw a reader in that still give the reader a well-defined character.

Crud, for that matter, a “character” doesn’t have to be a person at all. You ready for things to get tricky?

See, we think “character” and we think “living, breathing, sapient, viewpoint,” etc etc. But … that’s not always the case. There are books, for instance, where the sea is, in its own way, a “character” that the other characters interact with. Not a character with a speaking part (well, barring some stories where it is, clearly), but a “character” nonetheless. A presence that affects the world and can draw the reader in.

We’re getting complicated here, I know, but let me offer an example of what I mean and see if that clears up some confusion. Currently, I’m in the midst of editing Shadow of an Empire, a Fantasy-Western, and working with Alpha and Beta readers, etc. The usual digs. But the opening of Shadow provides an interesting example of this whole approach to “character” that I’m talking about (which in turn brought it to mind for this post). See, Shadow opens with one of the protagonists, Salitore Amazd, hunting for a criminal in the desert. But … we don’t actually learn everything about him.

Oh, we learn a bit. We learn a bit about his attitudes, and some of his reasoning. And there’s a lot shown about his character through his silent actions, as well as the reasoning behind his musing. But we aren’t given a full-out, page on page breakdown of him.

Instead, the audience is given the desert and the world. Which, in their own way, are like the “ocean” in some stories in that they’re “characters.” Or, if it helps, think of them as “having character” rather than being characters. But the results is that while the protagonists character is slowly revealed, there’s plenty of other character influencing the story to focus in on.

Now, I’m not saying that your setting needs to be a “character” in this way for your story to work. I’m just offering one way to keep from unloading everything right away. Character matters … but the world, the setting, can have character. Then, as the reader grows used to that world, the characters pick up the slack with more development, more aspects of their own, well, character.

Again, point is that when giving a story a well-rounded or developed character, you don’t have to dump every aspect of them on the reader all at once. Other parts of the story can easily serve as interesting material to learn about a protagonist through. Our audience doesn’t need to know right away that our character is super quirky because they play the mandolin. They can find that out in the natural progression of things when the character starts humming a song, and later, during some downtime, gets their hands on one.

In the meantime, what’s to keep the reader occupied? Well, that’s why you have a story! A mystery! Other characters, etc etc.

Okay, now I’m not saying that we don’t need to show the audience anything of a protagonist or character right at the start. There needs to be a draw, something to grab us. With Salitore in Shadow for example, just with his character the reader learns a few curious things about him in right away, the first being that he has access to a magic of some kind that lets him absorb heat and emit it later, and that means that no matter how hot the sun is, he doesn’t feel it the way everyone else does. And he hunts criminals for a living. Now, the story doesn’t elaborate much directly for a few pages … but what it’s given the audience is certainly unique and integral to the scene that builds up in the first chapter.

But Sali’s character isn’t the only draw. There are mentions of the wider-reaching impact that this magic has on the world, small hints of a larger Empire outside the immediate scene that may be affecting things … Lots of little bits of flavor that pull the reader in while building up the “character” of the world and the character that is Salitore Amazd. Even better, as these pieces start to connect, the reader is able to find links between the world and Sali that flesh things out more and reveal more depth about both.

Want another example? Think of the brilliant opening of The Dark Knight. Now that is an amazing opening that feeds you little tidbits of character and world that all are fascinating … and then all come together in a rush at the end. It’s gripping because it’s a heist, and well-done one. But then we get the little comments that build the world, like the fact that it’s a mob bank, and we get character lines and details fleshing out that and setting up the character of this “Joker.” Little hints of character, like I said.

And then the Joker takes off his mask … and everything that was set up before hand or given to the audience takes on an entirely new light. As an audience, we were being shown the Joker’s character and some of his driving forces without even realizing it. But once the mask is off, all these little bits of flavor spark together for the audience, and the character takes on a whole new level of depth.

You can build a well-developed, well-written character in the same way: Without giving the audience everything up front, but by feeding them crumbs that work with or compliment the “character” to let the character build itself, either in a stunning shock of a reveal like with The Dark Knight (which, mind, then continues to add in new elements to the Joker’s character as the film moves on) or in slow, steady connections, like with Salitore in Shadow of an Empire.

With that, I think I’ve said all I want to say on this topic for today. But as a quick refresh, our stories need well-developed characters. Let no one tell you otherwise, and always strive for good characters in your writing. A story without good characters is still a story … but it’s not a good one, and you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding an appreciative audience.

When it comes time to write those characters, however, don’t feel that you need to make sure the audience knows how well-developed they are right up front. Like a real-world friend, let them discover things at a pace that works, but keeps them engaged. Support it with other “characters,” from the world, from the setting to other actual characters.

Is it easy? Well … no. This is something that takes practice, and lots of it. But don’t feel bad if you don’t get it right the first, second, third, or even twentieth time. This is something that authors on their tenth book can struggle with. It’s just a part of the art. But they’re still selling. So don’t feel discouraged when you try and fail to reach the goal. As long as you keep trying, and don’t give up.

Good luck. Now keep writing.

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