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Rob’s Laws of Characters

May 5, 2011

Rob’s First Law of Characters: No character is unworthy. Anyone who has taken a creative writing course has heard that you should never throw away anything you have written because you never know when you might be able to use it in a different piece. I feel the same way about characters.  While it may not be the right time for the character’s story to be told, it does not make the character unworthy.  Even if you see no use for the character today, save her for another story or another time.

I have this little place I call the Cavern of Characters. It’s a little space in my mind, just behind and to the left of my left eye. In here, the characters I’ve thought up but haven’t used sip coffee, share the latest gossip and wait for their chance to be part of a new tale. Some writers might actually write down these characters in a notebook but I don’t typically do so— I am a seat-of-the-pants writer, so the character has to be really special for me to take such a drastic step.

Rob’s Second Law of Characters: Living isn’t easier for them than it is for you.

I don’t actually know where I get my ideas for characters. They just sort of show up, providing me with the flash of a face and a little bit of backstory, presented in the style of a sci-fi film, where the name and critical details about the character scroll across the screen of my mind with a blinking cursor, non-proportional font and a soothing typewriter sound effect :

Name: Suzy
Age: 25
Details: right-handed but brushes teeth with left hand
Occupation: Mechanic

Notes: recently lost left arm in a tragic accident

I prefer to work with characters who feel “real”, people or creatures who react the way I think they would if I were to meet them on the bus, in the local coffee shop or in the latest intergalactic hotspot (a high-class salad bar on the planet Zybnorq). The number of space aliens I admit to meeting is limited, so my real-world knowledge of what makes them tick is statistically insignificant. Nevertheless, the same principles hold true whether the character is human, alien or made of rock: the character has a history which has brought them to where they are at this point in the story and going against this history will not be easy for them. The characters need to sense their history, whether I fully understand it or not.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want a chapter where we meet little right-handed Suzy and watch mommy teach her to brush her teeth with her left hand because mommy wanted a left-handed child with good dentition but died of untreated halitosis before fulfilling this dream. We should learn about this as Suzy struggles to overcome the loss of her left arm, re-learning this skill as she finds a new way to honor her mother. When a character is going against her normal behavior, it changes her; if the character just shrugs it off and moves on, it doesn’t feel real to me. If you’re right-handed, try writing left-handed.  It isn’t easy.  And it shouldn’t be easy for your characters.

Rob’s Third Law of Characters: No matter how edgy and complex a character, they are no more likely to do unexpected, wacky things than a real person is.

Since I don’t plan ahead when I write, I’ll often start to write a story around a character only to have the character become uncooperative for some reason.

Name: Gunther
Age: 37
Location: somewhere windy

Gunther actually came to me about 30 seconds ago and told me, loudly (to be heard above the noise of the wind), that it was time to write his story.  So I began:

Sarah stepped forward and put her hand on Gunther’s trembling shoulder. “You don’t have to do this. No one would lose respect for you. Everyone knows about your fear of heights and your mother’s… skydiving mishap. There are other ways….” The plane shook turbulently, causing Sarah to steady herself by grabbing hold of the Skydiving Is Fun sign hanging over the table filled with bacon-wrapped beef nuggets.

“No,” Gunther snapped, forcing himself to ignore the dizziness and nausea that was threatening to overwhelm him. He pushed her hand away from him and glared at the gristly old man responsible for putting him in this situation. “I must do this!”

The next thing he knew, Gunther was plummeting toward the earth at 124 miles per hour. He—

At this point, Gunther, dangling in midair, refused to fall any further because he’d never go skydiving, terrified of heights as he is. He demanded a credible reason for being in this situation but didn’t like any of the reasons I presented:

  • he heard great things about a tiny bed and breakfast on the side of a remote mountain in the Restricted Zone and was planning to surprise Sarah with the honeymoon they were forbidden to have because of the Great Prophecy
  • he’s skydiving for charity
  • he was thrown out of the plane by the sinewy old man for refusing to rescind his militant, vegetarian views
  • he’s jumping into the headquarters of humanity’s evil, alien overlords, to thwart their plans to outlaw coffee

My severely-acrophobic, vegetarian, newlywed, socially-aware hero is not convinced by these and refuses to budge.  I’ve found that in cases where the character refuses to cooperate, it’s likely because you’re asking him to do something out of character.   Just like real people, your characters need to be true to who they are at all times and if you add some new skill or hobby to them in order to move the plot along, you need to add it to their characterization from the beginning. Since I don’t care to do that most of the time, I just send characters like Gunther off to my Cavern of Characters to wait for another day.

Rob’s Fourth Law of Characters: Listen to the voices.

It is a common tip given to young writers that you need to get to know your characters. There are as many lists of questions to answer about your characters out on the internet as there are people, but they boil down to:  Name, Motivation, and History.  It always seems that experts recommend for writers to sit their characters on a psychiatric couch and interrogate interview them.  In my experience, it is much more rewarding if I allow the characters to drag me onto that couch to keep me honest:

  • Why have you strapped me to the outside of a spaceship to make emergency repairs while dangling hundreds of miles above the surface of the planet below? Don’t you remember that as a kid I fell off a roof while I was cleaning out the gutters and it was just a fortunate bit of luck that my belt got caught on a gutter nail and I hung, suspended above the ground for thirteen hours, until help finally came? You should ask Suzy to do it – she could fix the ship with one hand.
  • Did you really just make me describe, in detail, the smell of my cat’s litter box as part of my explanation of my plans for a safe and effective way to eliminate the world’s radioactive waste?
  • Do my nightmares have to involve spilled coffee just because yours do?

There is a lot to learn from these questions the characters ask.  Sometimes they can even remind you about a character who is sitting in the dark little corner of the Cavern of Characters but would be perfect for the story you’re working on.  My characters often recommend each other for positions in a story.  Since they spend so much time drinking coffee behind my left eye, they often know better than I do who is best suited for a work-in-progress.

Ultimately, characters are just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to crafting a story. For me, they are the key pieces and they dictate everything that is going on around them so it is important for me to get them right. For other authors it may be very different.  What do you see as the critical Laws of Character in your stories? Do you keep unused or under-used characters around for future stories?

  1. May 5, 2011 12:32 am

    This has got to be one of my favorite Write Anything posts yet. Great advice, Rob. =]

  2. May 5, 2011 11:13 pm

    Absolutely loved this post! I’m in the middle of reading a very tedious book on characterization in fiction, and am so grateful I stumbled upon this post. Its humor and light-heartedness is refreshing and encouraging. You’ve managed to take the process of characterization from utterly challenging to playful and exciting. Thanks!


  3. May 6, 2011 7:01 am

    Very, very good advice. Excellent post!

  4. May 6, 2011 11:03 am

    I still think characters are the most underrated organs to a great story. Stories revolve around characters and it’s never the way around. Thank God, I think I have a good characters, and now I have to let them pull this story out for me.

  5. May 6, 2011 3:39 pm

    Goggles, Rachel, Icy and Jett: I’m glad you’ve has seen this post in such a positive way. I agree that characters are often very underrated and overlooked in story development. One thing that really brought this to the forefront for me is writing scripts for stageplays. Since scripts are fully built on dialogue and interaction between characters and there is no exposition at all , it has helped me to really get inside the heads of the characters I write. Plus, for a stage play, you don’t have the ready availability of special effects to give your characters the ability to catch bullets between their teeth or cast fire from their fists of fury. Well, not if you’re working within a realistic budget at least.

    If you’ve never written a script, you should try it — your characters will, eventually, thank you!

  6. May 7, 2011 9:29 am

    Absolutely love the cavern of characters idea. When I read this the first time, I immediately thought of that Wii Plaza (or whatever it’s called) where the Miis are milling about, waiting to be called for the next great adventure.

    I will certainly give this a try for an upcoming work of fiction… Thanks for the good suggestion!

  7. May 9, 2011 11:20 am

    Glad I’m not the only one with other people running around in my head. You’ve brought up something very important, though…I’ll have to get them some board games and movies to keep them more entertained!
    Seriously, though, great post as usual. You’ve got some of the best thoughts on the web!

  8. May 10, 2011 5:26 am

    I do keep extras in the waiting room as I like to call it. They fit someplace. It’s not them, just the story I tried to stick them in. Smashing post Rob.

  9. May 10, 2011 10:36 am

    I’m usually not too keen on laws when it comes to writing. But I could live with these ones with no difficulty. And I’d love to share a cup of coffee with some of the characters in your cavern. Maybe, I could entice one or two of them onto my page… just to see if they feel at home there.

    Your law number three… well, once my article is published maybe we could come back to it.

  10. May 11, 2011 8:34 am

    @Paul: Well, now, I’m curious if your post is agreeing or disagreeing with my third law… as for coffee sharing, my characters are almost always in the mood for coffee. Even when they’ve never been around coffee because it doesn’t exist on their sad little world, once they’ve been in the Cavern for a bit, they hear about it enough that they are convinced they want it too…

    @Carrie: Glad I’m not the only one with a room like this! And yes, it is not hte character that fails the character, it is the story that fails the character!

    @CMichaelMcGannon: Glad you enjoyed the post! I am absolutely serious that, for me at least, finding ways to distract and entertain the characters is the best way for me to get them to loosen up, relax and, ultimately, guide me into telling their stories. Board games, coffee, fresh veggie trays — they’re all good!

    @Rus: The Wii/Mii analogy is fantastic, though since I don’t play on the Wii it didn’t come to me at all until you mentioned it. But now that you have, yes, it is very much like that plaza, where all of these different characters with funny hair and oddly-shaped bodies float around doing their thing, picking on one another (or on me).

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