As long as you’re wasting time on the internet reading a blog, try this little quiz. If you were a writer and made up a character to write about, would you prefer:
- a) a male police officer
- b) a female police officer
- c) a Catholic nun
- d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp
There’s not really a lot of information to go on there, however. You might have chosen the young boy because you once were a ten-year-old boy and you went to camp. Or you might have chosen the nun because you actually are a nun (then again, you might have chosen anything but the nun because you actually are a nun).
Creating characters in fiction can be exciting, because you can basically write about any possible human being on the earth, a vast, practically endless, number of options. Creating a character can also feel overwhelming, because you must narrow a vast, practically endless, number of options down to one.
Then again, you could give things a twist, so that any individual choice feels larger. Let’s add a bit of twist to the ones above.
- a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen
- b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin
- c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own
- d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats
I love creating characters, probably the most important aspect of my own writing. As part of how I work, I watch people around me sometimes, listen to how they talk, and even repeat things they said in my head, thinking about the language they used and the tone of it. I think so much about fictional characters and what makes them tick (i.e., do they behave the way real humans probably would?) that I sometimes have trouble reading other books. I’m constantly thinking “No, no, they wouldn’t do that.”
Some books are not really about the characters, however; they’re about the story itself. In those cases, if the detective finds the hidden letter with the clue to solve the mystery, and he solves it, then it’s goodnight, ladies, the book is done. And so what if every single time he talks to someone, he coughs as if he’s not sure what to say, and he’s embarrassed in every store that he forgot to bring cash—and that’s the extent of character development. Who cares if he doesn’t seem real? He found the envelope and solved the mystery.
Sometimes, I care, though I can’t honestly say that it’s wrong to write with shallow, undeveloped characters, when the purpose is to tell an entertaining story. Sometimes I just want entertainment myself. I’ll watch the Three Stooges all day long, and I’m not thinking about how those characters don’t seem real. I’m thinking, “Har! Moe hit Larry with a frying pan!”
In fiction, though, while shallow characters are not inherently bad, they don’t entertain me. I just can’t enjoy that kind of writing. I want to read about, and write about, real human beings. So for the experiment, let’s take those characters I presented and add just a bit more.
- a) a male police officer who goes to another city on weekends to perform as a drag queen named Randi Hotlee; at home he also runs a black labrador rescue unit, with eight dogs currently living there
- b) a female police officer raising twins who are musical prodigies on violin, but her own father was an abusive famous violinist, and she doesn’t want her kids to take violin lessons
- c) a Catholic nun who writes country songs that her sister, a performer, passes off as her own; the sister is also raising the child the nun gave birth to before she became a nun
- d) a ten-year-old boy going off to summer camp for the children of foreign diplomats; he’s very afraid of bees and thinks there might be bees at a summer camp, but he wants to learn to swim
Now who would you choose? And once you’ve chosen, where does that person live, what is one of their favorite foods, and do they know how to ride a bicycle?