Thursday, July 14, 2011

Your Character Checklist

When you are writing, it’s easy to get too close to your characters. After all, they are in your head 24/7 and you know them well. So, today, I’d like to offer you a character checklist to go over, just to make sure that your characters are everything you want them to be.

1. Is your character motivation obvious? My main character in Ribbon of Darkness has just buried his father and is out for revenge. All of his motivation is directed toward finding the killer and making sure his father’s killer gets what he deserves. That kind of motivation is obvious. But the subtext becomes if when he is faced with the opportunity, can he mete out the vigilante justice he was imagining? Can he become the killer he abhors? So, you see, the primary motivation also has a secondary point to it.

But what about the subtle character who is in the background, a supporting character perhaps. Do they have a motivation? Are they necessary for main character motivation? Can you combine them with another character or are they truly necessary? What motivated you to put them in the story in the first place? (And yes, I’ve had to cut characters when I’ve realized that they really didn’t add to the story.) Motivation is important from main character to secondary ones.

One thing that’s really helped me with my character motivation is to write out a list of every character that appears in my manuscript and do a short blurb on them. That makes it very easy to see who is extraneous and who might need a little more motivation.

2. Do you characters have a voice? It’s important for your characters to have a unique personality, or “voice,” that makes them more real on the page. It’s sort of like looking around at your friends. I have friends that are always happy, can tell jokes and laugh loudly, friends that are always busy with a new cause and usually start conversations with, "Well, let me tell you this," friends that are constantly with their nose in a book and can spout off their opinions on pretty much any author with the least provocation. Each one of those people are unique, they have a unique “voice” about them in how they deal with the world around them and run their lives, and that is what draws me to them. Your characters in your book need this as well---something that will draw people to them and make it easier to relate to them.

3. Have you described your characters? I went through my last book and realized that I hadn’t described one of the main characters until well into chapter three. Of course, you have to be subtle, you can’t just throw in a laundry list of “John was 6’2”, long brown hair pulled back with an elastic, aquiline nose, azure blue eyes, strong jaw, good muscular frame, and very large feet.” You have to make it natural by giving the info piece by piece, (i.e. he has to re-tie his hair before dinner, or he tried to squish into a small booth, etc.) and please, for the love, do not use the cliché description of azure eyes and a strong jaw. Really see the details in your mind and be fresh in your descriptions.

4. Do your characters have flaws? I read a popular book thinking I would love the hero as much as all my friends had, but I found myself annoyed by him because every time there was a problem, the hero would appear and fix it. It wasn’t even hard for him, he just seemed to be able to do everything right and save everyone. He was just too perfect (he was even perfect in his description!) Every person has a flaw, whether it’s physical (his ears stuck out a little, his nose was slightly crooked, etc.) or an inner flaw (insecure, impatient, too focused, always stressed out, you get the picture.) It is more realistic for your characters to have a flaw of some kind and frankly, it’s more fun to write (and read) about someone you can identify with, since we’re all flawed.

5. Are your characters layered? Are your characters multi-dimensional? Do they come off as a cardboard cutout? Do they have depth and texture and feel like real people?

We talk a lot about plot points, story beats, and conflict, but none of those things will draw the reader in if the emotions of your characters are not involved. Your readers need to feel what is at stake for your characters, feel how torn they are, feel the anger or impatience, or unrequited love. And you draw them in when you write the characters with depth and emotions.

We all have a public face that we put on, but behind that face is a real human being with emotions simmering just underneath the surface. The trick as a writer, is to give your characters their surface face, but have a lot going on underneath that and be able to communicate it to your readers. It just makes your characters real, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys or anyone in between.

So, once your masterpiece is begun, if you’re in the middle, or even if you have finished, take a moment and go over your character checklist. You might be surprised at what you need to cut or add and the depth and layers you will realize need to be added to your story. It’s definitely worth doing because it can add that special something to your manuscript to make it stand out from the rest.


Melanie Goldmund said...

Strange -- I was just thinking that I've rarely described my characters in any of my stories. At first it was partly because I was writing Star Wars fanfiction and everybody already knew what Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi looked like. But when I moved on from that, I didn't describe the characters, either. It's really hard for me to "see" characters in a book. I just think "man" or "woman" or "wombat" or whatever.

In fact, if I'm reading from their POV, it's just like looking through their eyes, and since they never or rarely look in the mirror, I don't know what they look like, I only know what they think and say and do.

But even with other characters, I usually only describe them if I don't have a name, and I need something to differentiate between two or more characters. The tall one. The blond one. The one who limps, or whatever.

You can say "handsome" and everybody automatically thinks of someone different whom they consider to be handsome. Or you can say "he reminded me of Christopher Ecclestone" and someone who doesn't know that actor will be saying, "Who?" So does it really matter if we describe our characters, if everybody is going to imagine them differently anyway?

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

I think you have to give your reader some sort of anchor in describing your character, because then they can imagine and infer quite a few things about that character. For example, many times what you look like affects your outlook on life and your "voice." If you have a beauty mark to the left of your nose and you are self-conscious about it, it can affect the way you wear your hair, or how you look at your feet when you talk to people. Which in turn, says something about your character.

Does that make sense?

Melanie Goldmund said...

Yes, that makes sense, thanks! I like the idea of an anchor, a reference point, instead of a full physical description. I'll keep that in mind. :-)

Angie said...

Terrific checklist! That is such great advice. Thanks, Julie.

Debra Erfert said...

I LOVED this post. I started checking each point against my WIP to make sure things were on track. One thing I can say for sure is not one of my characters are perfect. LOL

I had a friend in a writing class who insisted on describing her main character, and it was from the MC's POV, too. Every time the prof told her it was wrong, she'd try to rewrite it by passing a mirror or see her reflection in the toaster. She was absolutely in love with how her MC looked, moved, etc, and wouldn't--couldn't grow beyond that.