#atozchallenge: All About Characters

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A writer can have a lot of different areas in which to be strong: dialogue, plot, pacing, description. We’ll get to some of them this year and save others for future blog posts.

Today’s letter in the A to Z challenge is C, so let’s focus on one of the other big elements that are vital to a good book: characters. You know: the people who populate your pages.

(I like alliteration.)

Now, we all know that it’s important to develop really good main characters. A lot of authors use a character study sheet or make a character bible to help with this. If you need an idea of what they look like, go and Google it. (Just be careful about all the links you’ll get to displays of character in the Bible, which is an entirely different creature and not germane for today’s discussion.)

I have a template I can share with my clients, when they need it. I’ve used it myself, in my own writing, on occasion (Yes, this is one of the many benefits you get when you’re a client around here). It’s long and very detailed.

Now, as I say to a lot of the young writers I work with (and we’ll talk about what exactly a young writer is later in the month, so stay tuned), you, the author, need to know all this information. Whether they are left-eye dominant may never come up in your story if they never shoot (a gun, a bow, a camera) but it may affect how you, the author, view your creation. Or the sort of house the character grew up in.

Yet these are the forces that shape your characters, and so it’s important for the author to know this stuff. Believe it or not, some authors think delving this deeply into a character is a waste of time, or that anything they learn about the character needs to go on the page.

To the first claim, I laugh. Nothing about working on your manuscript is ever a waste of time. It’s all an exploration, an exercise into deepening your knowledge of your characters.

And to the second, I argue that it does wind up on the page — just not in the way they expect. And this is why taking the time to create an in-depth character sketch is important: Because the more you know your character, the more authentically you will put them on the page. The little things you know about them will find a way to ooze out, into how they speak, into what their eye lingers on, on the way they appreciate the situation they’re in.

Getting to know your characters as deeply as possible is vital.

Now, all that said, you also need to know a little bit more about your non-dominant characters (aka the antagonist and the protagonist). Your secondary characters, the people who do more than walk through a scene and wave. Anyone who’s around for any length of time needs to be more than just The Maid, or The Deputy, or The Fairy Princess. They may not need an entire backstory or a complete work-up of their attitudes and motivations, but you need to know more than what’s on the page. You need a rough sketch of who they are and what they are up to. (Many a secondary character has arisen to steal the story and spawn a book — or a series! — of their own.)

Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s easier to ignore this step, or to rely on stereotypes.

But remember our goal here? The best book possible.

That means putting in the work. Taking the time to build your characters from the ground up, from the inside out. It’ll lend your manuscript an authenticity that it won’t otherwise have, and that in turn creates a book that readers can’t help but engage with.

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3 Comments

  1. Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

    April 4, 2017 7:14 am

    Great points, Susan! If you’re writing a series, you also have to track how your characters change from book to book.

  2. Tamara Woods

    April 5, 2017 1:53 pm

    i keep track of my characters in a separate file in my Scrivener. I post important and not so important information there so that I can reference it easily while I draft.

    C is for Character

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