Readers are pulled into a novel by the promise of a fascinating story. They finish the novel, though, because of intriguing, realistic characters. Here are a few “do’s” and “don’ts” that may help readers connect to your characters.
DO use real people. Everyone you know has a story that can enliven a fictional character. When you discover that your neighbor whom you’ve known for ten years did jail time for torching a baby food plant, you see everything else about her in a different light. Those same people probably also have interesting traits—Sally likes to flip a quarter across her knuckles—or annoying habits—Henry hums “Muskrat Love” as he eats . Be careful, though, that you . . .
DON’T use real names. Famous people are fair game and are used to being talked about. Besides, the courts are quite tolerant of dropping celebrity names in your fiction. Ordinary folks, though, are another matter. Even if they are flattered that you placed them in your novel, chances are they will feel used. Worse, they will think that you made a bundle from sales of your novel and might just take you to court. Moreover, don’t simply change the name and otherwise describe the person accurately. A better technique is . . .
DO make composite characters. One of my male characters talked like my male logic professor (a nasal, New York accent), had an irritating habit like a male acquaintance (picked his teeth and scrutinized the morsels), but had the naïveté of a female co-worker. Family can be fertile ground, especially when you are attuned to subtle gestures that indicate inner reactions. Aunt Beulah squints her left eye a tiny bit when she is about bless out her husband, but Uncle Dub’s counters to her rants, immediately following his biting his upper lip, are much sharper. Perhaps an effective character can be from a combination of these two, especially if you add cousin Edna’s wrist flick that means you’ve mentioned a family taboo. Composing these characters can be great fun, but . . .
DON’T use too many characters. Readers can become confused. Salman Rushdie is one of the best writers alive, but his novels have scores of characters, and I have to fill the back pages of his books with notes to keep up with who is who. I don’t have that kind of patience with other writers. Also, with too many characters, readers may be unable to tell whose story is primary. A couple of general rules to follow are to mention your protagonist’s name first and avoid having characters with similar names. You need minor characters, of course, that need not be fully developed, but for your major ones . . .
DO give your characters flaws. Totally praiseworthy people are neither believable nor interesting. Your favorite book store has a section for True Crime, but does it also feature True Morality? You’ll find Murder Mystery, but have you ever seen Good Deed Mystery? You cannot, however, make your protagonist merely morally despicable. Readers have to be able to root for your protagonist even if they aren’t in love with him or her. Make them disappointments to themselves or perhaps becoming increasingly aware of their shortcomings. Moral failings and doubts add complexity in a similar way that informing the reader about character’s surroundings does, but . . .
DON’T tell us about everything the character senses. Details help place readers into your fictive world, but while revealing that the mahogany sideboard in the den was hand-crafted by the protagonist’s ex-husband may provide some intrigue, readers probably don’t need to know that it is 36 inches high by 52 inches wide. Also, when characters notice something, you probably don’t need to inform the reader. Consider: “Joe drove through the night. He watched the endless white lines on the highway.” Wouldn’t readers understand that Joe saw the lines? Compare this: “Joe drove through the night. The white lines on the road stretched ahead endlessly.” Details not only fill out the character’s experience, but they also help show the character’s state of mind. Watching the white lines on the road could reflect Joe’s loneliness. If he instead notices airplane lights overhead, perhaps that indicates his wish to escape. He should pay more attention to his driving, but this could lead to an important plot device, because . . .
DO have something bad happen. When tragedy befalls a character, readers sympathize. Aristotle wrote that tragic drama works because the audience relates to the protagonist through pity—they feel his or her pain—and fear—they know it could happen to them. Readers want to find out how the character will cope, so they keep reading. Besides, we all delight to a degree in others’ misfortunes. Has anyone ever whispered, “Guess what I heard—Harriet and Ken really love each other and have never been unfaithful”? Perhaps more importantly, facing a crisis can release a character’s unseen aspects in terms of either strengths or weaknesses. The meek character may for push himself to heroism, or he might break down in despair, which could make the reader even more sympathetic. That character is likely to discuss his troubles with other characters, and when they do . . .
DON’T have them speak grammatically correctly. Dialogue can reveal much about your characters, and if they talk as if they’re delivering a lecture at an academic conference, it will sound contrived. Even college professors don’t got to follow no rules when they talk with friends. Have them speak in sentence fragments. Like we talk. Use comma splices, that’s how speech sounds. Vary their grammatical mistakes for distinctive voices. One character can’t use the right prepositions with save his life. Another get subject-verb number agreement wrong. When they are talking . . .
DO have them do something during dialogue. People rarely just talk—they are usually up to something, like cleaning fish, folding clothes, or sneaking at peek at the sun-bathing neighbor. This can help with tag lines, which means . . .
DON’T have them speak adverbially. Dialogue tags (he said, she said) are to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking, not to report how they speak. If you must write, “’I never said that,’ Shelley retorted sharply,” because that is the only way that is the only way that readers will know that Shelley’s remark was a retort and sharp (aren’t all retorts sharp?), then your dialogue is in deep trouble. Consider this exchange:
“I’m leaving,” said Wally. “I want my stuff back.”
“Everything’s right where you left it,” Petunia said angrily.
A beginning writer may think that “angrily” is necessary to inform the reader about Petunia’s inner state. Compare this:
“I’m leaving,” said Wally. “I want my stuff back.”
Petunia crushed out her cigarette on the chair arm. “Everything’s right where you left it.”
The dialogue is exactly the same, but Petunia’s behavior not only revealed her mood, it also eliminated the need for a dialogue tag. However good your dialogue is . . .
DON’T try to sustain a novel on character alone. Never forget that your job is to entertain the reader, and no character is entertaining enough to drag a reader through 200 pages without a plot.
I give “do’s and don’ts” workshops on several aspects of novel writing—beginnings, endings, mechanics—and I end each one with these two: DO choose the right life partner. We writers spend many hours alone, and when we’re with others we rattle on far too much about our writing. Find a mate who can tolerate you. DON’T think that anything I’ve said is absolute. My suggestions may help, but they are your characters. Get to know them.