Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Characters

Scarlett210. Characters are how  readers connect to story

I’ve read books about the history of eras, and while interesting, they are nothing compared to a good biography (I’m currently reading H. W. Brands’ biography of Andrew Jackson). Why? Because we are more fascinated with people than epochs. (I once heard history described as “biography on a timeline.”)

We all love twisty turny plots, chases, love, hate, fights, freefalls––all of that. But unless readers connect to character first, none of that matters.

9. On the other hand, character without plot is a blob of glup

Contrary to what some believe, a novel is not “all about character.” To prove the point, let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara. Do you want 400 pages of Scarlett sitting on her front porch, flirting? Going to parties and throwing hissy fits? I didn’t think so. What is it that makes us keep watching Scarlett? A little thing called the Civil War.

A novel is not a story until a character is forced to show strength of will against the complications of plot. Plot brings out true character, rips off the mask, and that’s what readers really want to see.

“Blob of glup,” by the way, is a term I remember from my mom reading me The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. I always thought it quite descriptive.

8. Lead characters don’t have to be morally good, just good at something

Two of the most popular books in our language are about negative characters. I define a negative character as one who is doing things that the community (theirs, and ours) do not approve of, that harm other people. A Christmas Carol has Scrooge, and Gone With the Wind has Scarlett. Why would a reader want to follow them?

Two reasons: They want to see them redeemed, or they want to see them get their “just desserts.”

The trick to rendering a negative Lead is to show, early, a capacity for change. When Scrooge is taken back to his boyhood, we see in him, for the first time, some compassionate emotion. Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all!

Or show that the negative character has strength, which could be an asset if put to good use. Scarlett has grit and determination (fueled by her selfishness) and just dang well gets things done. We admire that, and hope by the end of the book she’ll turn it to something that actually helps those in her world. She does, but by then it’s too late. Rhett just doesn’t give a damn.

7. Characters need backstory before readers do

Yes, you have to know your character’s biography, at least the high points. One question I like to ask is what happened to the character at sixteen? That’s a pivotal, shaping year (unless your character actually is sixteen, in which case I’d go to age eight).

But you don’t have to reveal all the key information to readers up front. In fact, it’s good to withhold it, especially a secret or a wound. Show the character behaving in a way that hints at something from the past, currents below the surface. Why does Rick in Casablanca stick his neck out for nobody? Why does he play chess alone? Why doesn’t he protect Ugarte? Why doesn’t he love Paris? We see him act in accord with these mysteries, and don’t get answers until well into the film.

6. But readers want to know a little something about the character they’re following

Against the advice that you should have absolutely zero backstory in the first fifty pages, I say do what Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly and most every bestselling novelist does: sprinkle in bits of backstory in the opening pages. But only what is necessary to help readers bond to character.

A rule of thumb I give in my workshops is this: In the first ten pages, you can have three sentences of backstory, used all together or spread out. In the next ten pages, you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all together or spaced out. This will force you to examine closely what you include, saving the rest for later, and letting the story get cracking.

5. Memorable characters create cross-currents of emotion in the reader

We all know about inner conflict. A character is unsure about what he’s about to do, and there’s an argument in his heart and soul, giving him reasons both for and against the action. That’s good stuff, and one way to get there is to identify the fear a character feels in each scene.

But to create even greater cross-currents of emotion in the reader, consider having the character do something the absolute reverse of what the reader expects. Brainstorm ideas for this, and you’ll often find a great one down the list, beyond your predictability meter. Put that action in. Write it. Have other characters react to it.   

Only then find a way to justify the behavior, and work that into your material.

It was E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, who defined “round” (as opposed to “flat”) characters as those who are “capable of surprising us in a convincing way.”

4. Great villains are justified, at least to themselves

The antagonist (or as I like to put it, the Opponent) is someone who is dedicated to stopping the Lead. It does not have to be a villain, or “bad guy.” It just has to be someone on the other side of one definition of plot: two dogs and one bone.

When you do have a bad guy opponent, don’t fall into the trap of painting him with only one color. The pure-evil villain is boring and manipulative, and readers won’t fall for it. You’re also robbing them of a deeper reading experience (for which they’ll thank you by looking for your next book).

One exercise I give in workshops is the opponent’s closing argument. Pretend they have to address a jury and justify their actions. They are not going to argue, “Because I’m just a bad guy. I’m a psycho. I was born this way!” No bad guy thinks he’s bad. He thinks he’s right.

Make that argument. Weave the results into your book.

3. Don’t waste your minor characters

One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is putting stock characters into minor roles: The burly bartender, wiping glasses behind the bar; the boot-wearing, cowboy-hat-sporting, redneck truck driver; the saucy, wise-cracking waitress.

Instead, give each minor character something to set him or her apart from the stereotype. Think of:

• Going against type (a female truck driver, for example)

• An odd tick or quirk

• A distinct speaking style

Use minor characters as allies or irritants. Even those who have only one scene. A doorman, for example. Instead of his opening the door for your Lead, have him give the Lead a hard time. Or have your Lead in a hurry but the cab driver is lethargic and chatty.

A little time spent on spicing up minor characters will add mounds of reading pleasure to your readers.

2. Great characters delight us

When I ask people to name their favorite books or movies, and then ask why, it’s invariably because of one great character. As good as Harrison Ford is in The Fugitive, people always mention Tommy Lee Jones, and even his famous line, “I don’t care!”

The Silence of the Lambs? Two great characters. The absolutely unforgettable Hannibal Lecter, and the insecure but dogged trainee, Clarice Starling. Lecter delights us (because we are all a little twisted) with his wit, deviousness, and dietary habits. Clarice delights us because she’s the classic underdog who fights both professional and personal demons.

1. Great characters elevate us

Truly enduring characters end up teaching us something about humanity and, therefore, about ourselves. They elevate us. And that is true even if the character is tragic. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, the tragic character creates catharsis, a purging of the tragic flaw, thus making us better by subtraction.

On the positive side, I think of Harry Bosch and Atticus Finch, both on a seemingly impossible quest for justice. I’m the better for reading about them, and those are the kinds of books I always read more than once.

On the negative side, I think of the aforementioned Scarlett O’Hara. We are pulling for her to do the right thing, to get with it, to join the community of the good. Then she goes off an marries some other guy she doesn’t love and uses him mercilessly. When she finally suffers the consequences of her actions we, too, are duly warned.

So, TKZers, when you think of an unforgettable character, who comes to mind? What is it about this character that moves you? Elevates you? Makes you want more of the same?

38 thoughts on “Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Characters

  1. Myron and Win.

    Mr. Coben created two totally opposite characters who are good friends because of what they admire in the other. You love Myron because he is so good; but you also love Win because he is so bad, and makes no excuses for it. The pair of them appeal to all readers because of the good and bad in each of us.

  2. “In the first ten pages, you can have three sentences of backstory, used all together or spread out. In the next ten pages, you can have three paragraphs of backstory,”

    Uh-oh! Looks like my current wip needs more editing. I’d like to hang around and chat, but I have work to do…

  3. Jim, thanks for another great teaching moment.

    For an unforgettable character, the first one who came to mind was Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. He was unforgettable because he was so odd and we spent the whole book in his head.

    Now for a character who is uplifting, who elevates me. This past week I’ve been losing sleep reading this story by an author named James Scott Bell. In TRY DYING, Ty Buchanan moves me because I see (at the mirror moment – at the 59% point) that he wants to be something more than a money making machine. Under his brash smart ass attitude there is a heart of gold. And I’m really eager to see where his character arc takes him (I bought all three books last week, so I have two more weeks of sleep deprivation), because he is looking for meaning and purpose for existence. Now that’s an interesting character that resonates with some of my struggles.

    • Gosh, Steve, that’s so kind of you to say. And what do you know, you can find via the e-reader the precise location of the “mirror moment.” I was happy to hear that, because I wrote these books before I had formulated my theory on that matter.

      Anyway, it gladdens an author’s heart to hear that a character they’ve created resonates with a reader. That’s what this game is all about. Thanks again.

  4. Jim,

    Been following TKZ for over a year now and especially look forward to your always-excellent posts.

    Your recent post on finding ideas induced me to download your “Try” series (I HAD to find out about the big guy in a Santa hat and G-string). Kindle in hand, I took my car into the shop and started “Try Fear” in the waiting room. I actually resented when the mechanic completed the repair after only an hour because I was so into your book. Finished it later that night at 1 a.m.

    To my surprise, at the end, I realized I’d inadvertently read the last book in the trilogy first. But no matter, because the characters were so fascinating. You salted in just enough back story for each that I could easily follow their already-established relationships without confusion, yet still be intrigued enough to learn more about each character.

    In a way, I’m glad I started with the last book because now I get to go back and find out the genesis of each character and how they developed their relationships. It’s like learning a new story about an old friend’s past. You already like and admire the person, so it’s a treat to uncover something you didn’t know about them.

    In a series, each book should stand on its own and be able to be read out of order. You’ve masterfully peeled the onion layer by layer of your characters’ lives. You also show how to refer back to previous events/plots without slowing down the current story.

    I’ve found generally there are good writers and there are good teachers, but rarely do both talents reside in the same body. You have nailed both, sir! Thank you.

    • Debbie, you are so right about books needing to be able to stand on their own in a series. It seems like a lot of authors struggle with doing this. I’m not sure if they’re trying to be gimmicky for marketing purposes or they just don’t know how, but so many series books do not meet this requirement.

    • I was living in the Caribbean a few years ago and, because of when books happened to show up on island, I ended up reading the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series backwards. In retrospect I might have liked them better that way.

    • Boy, that is so nice of you to say, Debbie. Thank you.

      I’ve never thought about the idea of reading a last book first, but based on some of these comments, I wonder if I ought to try that sometime. How interesting….

  5. For anybody who’s looking it up on Amazon, the Andrew Jackson biography author is H.W. Brands, not H.M. Brands. On that note, Mr. Bell, do you find Brands to give a fair and relatively unbiased look at Andrew Jackson? I’ve got a goal to read a bio on all the presidents but sometimes you have to weed through titles that lean too far one way or the other, although this problems tends to be worse with more recent presidents than the older ones.

    All great tips. One of the manuscripts in my drawer is one that needs a more redeemable/likeable antagonist. Feedback has consistently been that no one cares about him because he is TOO bad. Nothing redeemable. I’m determined to fix him, because I love that story. All excellent points that you bring up. Thanks.

    • Thanks for that correction, BK. I made it in the post. I hate to get an author’s name wrong!

      I do like Brands’ writing. I was on a panel with him once, and I find he is accessible in person and in his books. Like David McCullough.

  6. Forgot to add, my all time favorite character is not from a book that most everyone embraces as one of the all time classics. It’s the character “Nevada” from Zane Grey’s “Forlorn River” and 1 novel follow up. He epitomizes the larger than life character, but he also has a less than stellar past. And in the end, that less than stellar past is what helps him save the day. I never ever get tired of reading that book. It’s ironic, numerically, probably the majority of the pages of that book are taken up by the romance, but it is Nevada’s story that makes that book zing.

  7. Great summary, Jim. Recently I binged on Michael Connelly’s Mick Haller series, defense lawyer. I loved how Haller is unapologetically good at defending scum bags. He reminds me of an upgraded Better Call Saul lawyer. He’s heroic and brave and has a devious off the wall way of defending his clients. The series focuses on the character’s personal life too. His humor makes him oddly endearing and the first person POV is a great choice for storytelling.

    Have a great Sunday, Jim.

      • And they’re half brothers. He’s aging Bosch in an interesting way. I’m surprised how drawn I am to the personal stories as much as the crime plots, but that’s Connelly’s deft hand with his characters.

  8. I saw Blob of Glup open for Strawberry Alarm Clock back in the ’60s.
    On the note about villains being justified, at least to themselves, in my time as an amateur thespian I learned the maxim that every character in every play – the hero, the villain, the third spear carrier from the left – thinks it’s his story, that the play is about him. If you’ve got a stage full of characters who are all passionately pursuing his or her own story, you’ve got something audiences will be entranced by. Same with novels and readers.
    Another acting maxim that applies to characters in a novel – If you’re asked to play the devil, find the angel in him. If you’re asked to play an angel, find the devil in him. No character is all bad, and a character who is all good with no flaws is boring.

    • Right on, John. I trod the boards myself, and the character I always wanted to play was Iago. He has so many great lines.

      I’m also reminded of Paradise Lost, in which the show stealer is Satan. Talk about someone who thinks it’s all about him!

  9. Atticus Finch is one of my all time favorite heroic characters. His quiet courage is something I’ve always admired. His devotion to his children and his desire for social justice are admirable. I love the character of Atticus so much I wish that Harper Lee would have written an entire series about him.

    Now as far as villains go it would have to be Nurse Ratched form One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since I’m a counselor for nursing students my goal is to make sure none of them turn out with the streak of cruelty and the need to see others suffer and take satisfaction in the suffering like Ratched did.

    Wonderful post, Jim.

    • Ah, Jillian, great villain! Nurse Ratched is one of the all-timers. And she really does have a good argument for her side. She also wields her power with a quiet smile, ready to strike. She is flat-out scary.

      • And Nurse Ratched is such a great, memorable villain precisely because she doesn’t think she’s a villain at all. She thinks she’s doing what’s best for the damaged people in her care. If she were a sadist, she might eventually grow tired of it. But because she thinks “it’s for their own good” she’s going to press on, and on, because it’s her duty. And that’s REAL horror.

  10. I love discussions about characters! So thank you for this post, Jim.

    I agree with the others here about a few of the “classic” characters like Scarlett and Atticus Finch. But I have so many other favorites.

    –The shallow, “book candy lover” side of me favors Lula — and Ranger, of course — in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels.

    –Evanelle in GARDEN SPELLS by Sarah Addison Allen. She’s one of those characters I wish could come to life because I’d want to meet her.

    –Bernie Rhodenbarr from Lawrence Block’s BURGLAR WHO…series.

    –Amelia Peabody, as well as her husband, Emerson (Elizabeth Peters books).

    –Bernadette in WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? (One of my all-time favorite books!)

    –Sister J from your own nun series. I love Sister J!

    I just finished reading THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. I kept seeing references comparing this novel to GONE GIRL — or at least pitched to GONE GIRL fans. That alone caused me to hesitate, because I was hard-pressed to find any character tolerable in GONE GIRL. 🙂 But, in my opinion, Hawkins did a very good job with her characters. While they all had plenty of room for self-improvement, they were at least ones you could get behind (or some of them, anyway).

    Now that you’ve got my wheels turning, I’m sure I’ll be thinking of more.

  11. Two characters that greatly influenced me as writer — and both named Emma.

    Emma Bovary. When I first read this book, I was floored. Not just by the story and all the characters, but I think it was the first book I read wherein I realized I could be fascinated (and want to follow) a repellent lead character. I HAD to see what this utterly selfish woman’s fate would be. I still go back and read this book when I need a refresher course on what you, James, call “doing the opposite.” (Am a great believer in this for creating characters.)

    Second is Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austin’s “Emma. Another deeply flawed female character — spoiled, rich, entitled, and a bit of a pill. Austin called her “a heroine whom no one but myself will like.” But her motivations and machinations are fascinating to watch and the book’s great triumph is how Austin shows Emma’s slow growth into a mature likeable woman by the end of the book…great example of character arc. Also, rich secondary characters in both books. I read “Emma” during my romance writing days because I was stuck on the love-match thing. Like Austin, I had a female protag in love with the wrong man but I didn’t know how to resolve this until I met Austin’s Mr. Knightly…the Right Man who is there all along.

  12. Great post and I love unforgettable characters, good or bad. Most of the ones I remember are tragic–Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’ubervilles, Anna Karenina, etc. I would say one baddie that made me sympathize with his quirkiness, then GASP as I realized how stinking evil he was, was The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    I love Scarlett and yet even at the end of GWTW, she hasn’t really morphed or changed much. And yet her very life is a lesson and reminds us of our own selfishness or of people we know who have made choices like she did. I love books like that and migrate toward them. For me, the most unforgettable characters are very HUMAN and believable.

    • Oh man. I remember reading Jude the Obscure, and I was depressed for a week. But Hardy did nail those characters, didn’t he? Human indeed. Unforgettable. Thanks, Heather.

  13. I am a huge Agatha Christie fan and love both Poirot and Miss Marple, equally in their own way, they excel. I am also a fan of Stephen King, who in my opinion, is great with all of his characters. His books are huge and have so many characters, yet each are distinct and memorable, and as you mentioned earlier, Harlan Cobin. He is another master of characterization. It seems that one can never know too much on the subject. Thanks for such an interesting post.

  14. Pingback: Best Fiction and Writing Blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  15. Uh oh, the opening scene of my WIP breaks the backstory rule, and I knew when I wrote it that it did. (It does move the story forward, however…and it’s short.)

    My MC is a grandmother who’s son was stolen from her when he was 8…by the boy’s stepfather, a pedophile. She’s spent her life’s savings looking for her son and feeling guilty for not having recognized the signs of her son’s abuse (‘a million closed eyes’).

    She still talks to her son, who would be 43 when the story starts. (I’m writing this story in the first person, a new challenge for me…gotta keep growing as a writer, right?)

    My regular editors and a couple of fans who deserve treats love the opening, love the character, and love her voice. My critique group takes a shot at it on Thursday this week. Maybe they’ll hate it due to the backstory. And when I wear my editor’s hat, I hate backstory and info dump openings, too, but for some strange reason, I do think the opening works perhaps because the voice is really strong.

    I’m breaking the rule for two reasons: because I believe that losing a child, especially when you have legitimate cause to feel responsible, colors everything you do or think for your entire lifetime, and because the reader has to know this particular part of her backstory to understand why she behaves the way she does in the second chapter…the second chapter would not work at all if I wait to disclose the information later.

    So, I guess I’m wondering whether anyone knows of a well-written thriller (this one will be a legal thriller; the first wasn’t) where the author does break the backstory rule, and it works.

    Tiny excerpt: If I could think of something I haven’t already done to find you, I´d clean toilets for the money and hire another private detective who would cool down real fast next to your freezing cold case.
    Dearest Patrick, you are not a cold case…

    • Sheryl, while I would make the act first, explain later my default, I would not rule out a strong voice type of opening, as you suggest. It’s more difficult, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

      Have a look at the opening pages of The Martian by Andy Weir.

  16. Great article. I immediately think of Lestat de Lioncourt from The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Lestat was a Protagonist who could have easily been the villain in any novels. He danced on a balance beam of morality. Heck, he was so interesting to his own story world that the devil took intersest (in Memnoch: The Devil). Thanks

  17. Thank you for such a thought provoking post. I must go back now and develop further the backstory for my villain to give him a hint of vulnerability.
    So many worthy characters have already been mentioned, I love them all. I have also felt drawn to the characters in Dick Francis’ books. He always wrote in the first person and his lead felt like someone you would like to know. Harry Bosch is another favourite, and I recently discovered Loius Kincaid.
    I am feeling motivated again to get writing, as I always do after visiting with you at TKZ

    • Julie, we love to hear about that, the motivation to write that comes from our desire to help writers. Thanks for sharing that and may the force (of the keyboard) be with you.

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