The Character Next Door

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So you finally have the time to finish that story. Your outline touches on every aspect of the plot. You’ve made it the best that it can be. You’re sure your efforts have the right mix of suspense, humor, clarity and originality.

All of that is necessary, but what about connecting with your readers? Fiction writing isn’t the same as weaving fairy tales or campfire stories; you don’t have the added benefit of using physical animation. You need to grab your readers’ attention with your words only. And the best way to do this is to keep your readers’ interest with characters that are worth caring about… just like the character next door.

Most adults have very limited time for pleasure reading. Those who choose fiction over self-help or biographies do so in order to lose themselves in someone else’s life. Whether it’s for their last half-hour of the day, or to take them away from the drudgery of public transportation, they can escape into another world. They want their story to not only hold their interest, but involve them as well. It’s almost impossible to fulfill these desires with characters who are caricatures or one dimensional.

Many readers of fiction choose to read books in a series, for the simple fact that they like to follow the ongoing ups, downs and happenings of the main characters. (Most followers of the Nero Wolfe series will never remember the murderers, but they will remember Archie Goodwin’s romantic interludes!) People consider fiction characters as personal acquaintances; if they aren’t likeable, just as in real life, the readers will avoid them – and the author’s future works as well.

So, how does a writer go about creating characters who mesmerise in the present, and have unlimited potential for the future?

Ask yourself: what makes us interested in others? Knowing about a character’s past helps to explain their outlook. Awareness of their focus goes a long way in predicting their responses. A few hints about their personal desires show us where they are at in their lives.

Obviously the length of the piece will determine how much of your word count can be spent on character definition. Some writers fill the reader in as the story unfolds; others provide a lengthy introduction in the first paragraph or page. The most effective method is to use the character’s own dialogue so the reader can ascertain the character’s views and opinions, and of course, characteristics.

But these are just processes. What are some actual techniques to get at the essence of the character in the first place?

One way may be to use the concept of an “imaginary friend,” just as you may have had as a child. You knew what his favourite colours and foods were because you had free rein to make him whatever you wished, and it was usually an extension of yourself. The same construction could apply to your character. Writing down as much as possible about your character may flesh him into an individual with specific likes and dislikes, from which may spring appropriate phrases and actions.

Extending from this may be the creation of a person that is based on your traits, but with a decidedly different personality. This will allow your insights to blend through, colouring the persona with a special temperament. (Failing that, you could do a composite of different people you’ve known, but unless you have a strong sense of the character already, he may become a bit too complex to elicit empathy.)

It may be a good idea to provide your character with a past that has a direct bearing on his present conditions. This could be interwoven into the plot with the use of flashbacks. This in itself can provide very deep insights into the character, eliminating the need to introduce new elements as they are already present via the flashbacks.

Another worthwhile practice is to display a characters’ prejudice, hard heartedness, or lack of education. A writer who did an excellent job of this was Ed McBain, with his 87th precinct series. One police officer showed his ignorance with every line uttered; another’s male chauvinism was quite politically incorrect. However, since everyone knows such individuals, reading McBain’s short stories and books is akin to hearing co-workers around the water cooler. (One of his methods was to get into the mind of such characters, and to include in the story the reasons for their amoral thinking. Their own points of view toward their lack of character obviously took some analysing, but readers come away with a definite understanding of what makes the characters tick.)

A writer who cleverly creates characters that defy categorisation is Sue Grafton. Her returning cast includes individuals with quirks that aren’t impossible, just improbable. The finished product generates profound respect for a family of 90 year olds who start romances and fights, along with a private eye who eats mainly pickles and pimento sandwiches, and owns only one dress. Here is a case of characters possessing out of the ordinary habits which identify them, but because of the writer establishing their focus and reasoning, it works.

So remember, Joe Blow from Number 32 may drink too much beer and forget to mow his lawn, but he always brings over your newspaper if it lands on his side of the fence. It’s small idiosyncrasies like these that make us remember people. We’re interested in them without even realizing it, and this in turn can make us care about them.

Really well thought out fiction characters impress us to the point where we wish we had them as friends in our own lives. They are usually far from perfect, sometimes irrational, and often make mistakes. In other words, they are just like us.

We can take a hint from these famous writers and take the time to develop our characters thoroughly before introducing them to our readers. When the “character next door” is intriguing and cared about, we don’t want the story to ever end!


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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