Character: Don’t let your characters run amok

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about how to avoid confusing the reader

This morning I decided to do something I have been wanting to do for sometime … I made some muesli. I took a few liberties with the recipe, but I think it came out pretty good.

I may have gotten carried away with the  fresh fruit. But I was able to find some nice organic berries at the store last night. And Teresa came home with some apples from her last trip, so why not.

Now, one thing that is important when cooking is to allow each ingredient to have its own voice. If one ingredient, such as blueberries overpowers the dish, then all one ends up with is a bowl of blueberries, with a bit of stuff added in. It is the same way when writing.

Keeping characters under control

We have all watched movies, where some secondary character seems to steal the scene from a particular actor. It is great to have interesting characters, but if I end up rooting for a secondary character, then the situation has gotten out of hand. For example, when I go to watch a James Bond movie, I want to root for James Bond, and I want the Bond character to be the hero. If a secondary character seems to be more interesting, or the Bond du jour seems lifeless, flat and insipid, then I am going to leave the theatre unsatisfied (and with the price of movies and snacks approaching a c-note for a date night that is really unsatisfactory).

Five specific suggestions

What can I do to keep my characters under control? Well, here are some suggestions.

  1. Plan your character arc. Know in advance which characters are the main characters, and which are secondary. Ensure that the main character has specific strengths, weaknesses, and is interesting.
  2. Examine the plot. Do the characters simply exist to service the plot, or is their development part of the plot (or at least a plot thread).
  3. Examine the character. Is the character a complete person, or simply a cartoon caricature? If the latter, spend some time adding depth and complexity. Keep in mind that character complexity is not simply contradiction. Even Scooby Doo is always a coward, but he is willing to attempt some brave acts for a Scooby Snack.
  4. Do not dumb down a secondary character. If a secondary character appears to be unusually strong, consider adding a subplot that permits the character to shine – or better yet, consider adding a book to the series that features that character.
  5. Be flexible. Sometimes a secondary character really is more interesting than the main character. If the main character cannot be made more interesting, be prepared to fire that character, or at least provide a demotion. Obviously this will entail a bit of re-write, but in the end will produce a stronger work.

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