Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Characters

Coincidently, yesterday I came across two articles about what I will term "the care and feeding of characters." One was in the local newspapers: an article on New Jersey author, Wendy Mass, who has published several middle grade books. I've read one, "Every Soul a Star." In this book she used a chapter for each point of view; five characters in all, I believe, told the story. In the article she presented some pointed questions about character building: "What about your main character's best friend?" What's your character's favorite TV show?"

This gave me pause. I'm setting out to revise a middle grade book I just finished. How well do I know my characters? Have I really focused on what food they like? How they feel when they get up in the morning? How they feel about their siblings? Their Parents? Ummm...maybe the answers to these questions would help me sharpen some interaction and enliven my description.

A second article appeared in the Arts section of The New York Times: "Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know." It made me consider what makes a reader care passionately about the characters in a novel. Character A detests everything about Character B, and the reader agrees with Character A, until something happens to make the reader see that Character B is everything Character A has dreamed of, only Character A can't see it. But the reader is saying, Come on, A, it's so obvious..."

This doesn't just happen. A writer can only achieve this kind of reader interest if the characters have been well defined, allowing for the sudden change in the reader's perception of Character B.

Ahh...I've got my work cut out for me.


  1. This is EXACTLY what I was trying to tell you. Details, emotions, specific physical reactions. All make your characters real and you can't know this without knowing the character.

    Paula Danziger used to say that she had to know what her character's closet looked like.

  2. I have my work cut out for me, too! While I think I have a pretty good handle on who my MC is, I need to write more of those details into my manuscript. Good tips.

  3. I think knowing those character details is critical. But it's never too late to add them in. Think of it this way. A first draft is getting to know your characters. In those revisions, you get to know them better, you deepen your relationships. Some of the things you find out about them may never be revealed in your manuscript. But they will color everything you write.

  4. I agree it's important to know your characters. But I have to admit as I was writing my novel, that I decided a lot of things along the way as the need arose. For example, I didn't decide the MC's career interest was "acting" until I needed him to do some acting in a scene. If I needed him to know a scientific fact, I might have made his career interest a doctor. J.A. said above, the first draft is still getting to know your characters.

  5. Linda: Since your post is about the feeding of characters, and it's right above J.A.'s most delectable post, I think you might also ask, What's your character's favorite dessert?" Which makes me wonder, Did molten lava cake exist at the turn of the 20th century too? Hope so, for your character's sake.

  6. I should think it would help to write a character sketch for each of the people in your book.

    If you don't know what a character likes or dislikes, it's hard to have them react to situations in a consistent way?

  7. I definitely can't force my character likes and dislikes, this is something I have to learn along the way. Sometimes though a character arrives on the scene fully whole - which is great but rare for me. Knowing all of that "stuff" off the page, definitely helps a character pop. And I agree with Judy - definitely colors everything you write.

  8. For me, this becomes as simple as authenticity. Does that character sound authentic? Do they behave consistently? Do they seem like a fully realized individual, who continues on before and after the perimeters of the story?
    I've seen characters that seem to be born on the first page, without a solid background or history. I really try to avoid that in my own work, which is hard, until I've been through enough revisions!