Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Makes Your Characters Special? by Andy Scheer

Unless they’re memorable, why should readers care?

The contest organizers didn’t include this criteria to derail entries. In every fiction contest I’ve judged, I’ve been asked to weigh in on the characters. Yet as I reflect on the eleven novels I just evaluated, this category proved especially daunting:

● Did you find the characters interesting? 
● Were they skillfully developed and multi-dimensional?
● Were they distinct or could any character have said another's words or complete their actions?
● Did you empathize with the hero/heroine and maybe even the villain?
● Could you tell what motivated them?
● Were the motivations believable, even for this genre?

I was judging adventure novels, which put much of their stock in the plot. But plot is just one reason I’ve read so many stories featuring Dirk Pitt, Cotton Malone, Philip Mercer, and Gray Pierce. As these characters face world-threatening challenges, I’ve come to know them—especially their quirks.

Pitt doesn’t just save the world, he collects antique cars. For his day job, Malone runs a rare bookstore. Mercer remodeled his Alexandria, Virginia, town house—and relaxes by polishing old railroad ties. When not on a secret mission, Pierce struggles in his dealings with his father, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. These characters have lives outside the plot. They have unusual interests. Much like real people.

I think of one friend, who keeps a world-class book collection. Or another, who builds beehives. Or another, who displays a fanatic devotion to the Chicago Bears – and the Detroit Redwings. Or another, whose hair, makeup, and clothing are always perfect.

Each threatens the norm in some aspect of their personality and interests. That’s one measure of what sets them apart—that makes them interesting.

Sadly, most of the contest entrants hadn’t gotten that message. They filled their pages with stock characters (with the obligatory weird names): the usual straight-arrow good guys and twisted bad guys.

If these characters had any quirks, they didn’t show up in the early going—where I was evaluating if the story would be worth my time.

A couple weeks ago I discovered Philip R. Craig’s series of Martha’s Vineyard mysteries—and got to know J.W. Jackson. Unlike Jackson, I’m not an ex-cop, don’t know the best tide conditions for catching bluefish, and have never made paté with fish I’ve smoked. But I sure like spending 250 pages with him.

Or consider my recent friend Bernie Little from Phoenix. Unlike him, I’ve never seen the attraction of driving fast in early Porsche convertibles, especially while listening to trumpet player Roy Eldridge. But Bernie does, and as long as I’m going to help him catch the perps, I’ll respect the quirks that make him Bernie.

Just like the people who read your novels will show at least a polite interest—or even a secret fascination—with your main character’s distinctive clothing, diet, makeup, hobbies, music, pets, phobias, allergies, sleep habits—something!


Linda Glaz said...

The hardest thing for me to do to them was make them flawed. I saw my good as goodie two shoes, and my bad as Jack the Ripper with no redeeming qualities. My son set me straight in a hurry. Now, I LOVE flawed characters, and LOVE to see the kernel of goodness in my bad guys!

Joyce Hart said...

Excellent post! My favorite books are the ones that I really like the characters. I guess that is what draws me back to those stories. It's hard to read a book when I really don't like the characters, those are the books I never finish and find boring.

Andy Scheer, Hartline Literary said...

Character embellishments make a big difference to me. Such as a character who not only makes a point of putting mustard on a sandwich, but who insists on a particular brand. Those types of details go a long way toward making a character three-dimensional.

Rick Barry said...

Excellent observations and suggestions, Andy. Real people are not cardboard cutouts of humanity. Neither should fictional characters be.

You remind me that, when I was a teen reading comic books, the trait that immediately made young Peter Parker (aka, Spider-Man) stand out from other comic heroes is that he had actual hangups and his own share of teenage angst. His weakness wasn't kryptonite from outer space. His weakness was that he was a human, like us, which made us care about him.

Linda Glaz said...

Great observation, Rick. So true!

Andy Scheer, Hartline Literary said...

I just read a scene in which an important supporting character picks the split nuts from a bowl of peanuts. He's asked why.

"More salt on those."
"Excuse me."
"If you have a whole peanut, the middle isn't salted. But if the nut is split and salted, then there's twice the salt."

Talk about a character quirk!

Diana Flegal said...

I love quirky characters for the same reasons. Makes them relatable. They will either remind me of someone I like in real life, or that I do not. There is no bigger time waster than a boring read. Blah!

Andy Scheer, Hartline Literary said...

A character without some quirks is like popcorn without salt or butter. Why bother?

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