It’s All About Character
When you write a story, there’s a lot of stuff to fill in. Of course there’s the story, the plot as
it may be, the telling of the tale. How about the setting, you know, the house, the town, even
the kitchen? As you work out all of the hundreds of details that are going to make your story
a story, don’t forget to put a little extra sweat into those characters that are going to populate
the tale. A great setting, even a strong plot, isn’t going to help much if your characters fall
flat. Think of it as a couple in a ball room trying to do the two step when they don't know the
A character is more than just Bob who lives in a little Northern town and works at the local
mill. Bob is who he is, Bob reacts how he reacts, Bob goes and does and says what he
does, all because of who he is and what his life is like and what his history is and what his
situation is. Tony might live in that same little Northern town and work at the same local mill,
but if these two characters were real people and you followed them around for a few days,
you would see that they were nothing alike, not inside.
So often when I read the work of new writers, I spot Jane Doe and John Smith over and over
again in the writing. It seems every character in the story is the same person. Sure, they
have different names, different jobs, lives, are different ages, but they all talk the same, think
the same, act and react the same. In real life, this doesn’t happen, unless the Pod People
What can you do to keep Jane Doe and John Smith from taking over your story?
It’s really easy…well...okay…it’s kind of easy. It just takes a little work. A little time and effort
spent on each character, even that little walk through character that is only going to pop up
now and again.
This work starts with just thinking about who you want and need a character to be. Then
you dig a little deeper. Maybe you do this by just typing in information you think up about
him or her, maybe you fill in a character chart on the character or do some kind of character
interview, or maybe even a mixture of it all. What ever it is, you need to use what tools work
for you to help you make those walking bones become flesh and blood. The more important
a character is to your story, all the better you should know that character, no matter if she is
the heroine or the villain.
Take Bob and Tony.
Bob was born in Louisiana and raised on a small farm. His father was hard and seldom fair.
They were poor, and Bob learned to work hard at an early age. He also learned to bite his
tongue and save arguments for important things. It was how he survived his childhood. As
tough as his father could be with men and boys, he was always gentle and respectful with
women. Bob’s mom worked hard on the farm too, because it was a small family farm and it
took them all working as much as they could to keep things going, but his father cared for
her and protected her, and worked to please her as much as he could.
When Bob was nineteen, they lost the family farm. When his family moved to town and his
father took a good job there, Bob felt he wasn't needed any more, and for the first time in his
life, decided to put his own wants first. He traveled and moved from job to job. Until he
landed and settled in that small Northern town where he found a job he loved and people
who made him feel welcome. He even liked the weather.
When Bob speaks, you’ll hear his southern drawl. Bob’s family farm raised both sugarcane
and milk cows. He knows a lot about both. He isn’t scared of hard work and grew up to be a
pretty tough man himself, though unlike his father, he bends over backwards to be fair
because he got the wrong end of fair too many times. His views of women and marriage
came from his family. He doesn’t plan on divorce and thinks women are strong but need to
be cared for. He’s had two serious girlfriends, but things didn’t work out. He’s still looking for
the woman he’s going to marry.
Bob also likes spicy foods, strong whiskey but doesn’t drink often. He doesn’t cook anything
that takes more than a couple of steps or the pushing of a microwave button, he loves dogs,
in fact, he loves all animals and doesn’t hunt, even though he had done so with his father
often to put food on the table. Bob likes horror movies, motorbikes, and believe it or not, the
smell of flowers because his mother used to almost always keep a bunch of some kind of
flowers on the table in the kitchen. The smell of flowers reminds him of her.
Tony grew up one town over from where he works at the mill. His mom was on her third
marriage by the time he was ten, but at least Mr. Third had money and staying power. Mr.
Third gave in to Tony’s mom anytime she shed a few tears, and she often laughed about
what an easy touch he was. The man wasn’t too bad of a stepfather though, and spent time
with Tony, took him on out-of-state hunting and fishing trips each summer.
Tony fits in well with a lot of the people in town. He’s kin to some of them. His stepfather got
him the job at the mill. Tony knows this is about his last chance. Mr. Third paid for college….
two of them….but Tony ended up flunking out of one and getting kicked out of the other. Mr.
Third got him a few jobs during and after, but Tony likes free time a lot better than working.
This time though, his mom has put her foot down. There will be no more schooling, no more
handouts, no more anything. Tony will do the best he can at this job and take care of
himself, or live on the streets. She no longer cares and isn’t going to see any more money
wasted on him.
Tony does a good job at work, but doesn’t do one more thing than he has to, or spend one
minute longer there than he has to. He loves to spend his nights off at one of the local bars.
He likes war movies and comedies, video and computer games, and spends a lot of time on
line. He likes junk food better than meals and his favorite drink anytime of year is ice-cold
beer. He’s experimented with some drugs, but nothing too heavy or too often. He dates a lot,
but never the same woman for very long. He doesn’t really trust women. They all seem to
remind him too much of his mom. It doesn’t take them long to start trying to find out how
much he earns and what he owns. Anytime things don’t go their way, they are usually pretty
quick to turn on the tears or the guilt. He just doesn’t need the hassle.
See, two guys, same age, live in the same town, work at the same job, but neither would do
the same thing for fun or eat the same thing as a favorite, or even react to a woman the
That’s why when you write a story filled with Jane Doe’s and John Smith’s, people talk
about cardboard cutouts. If someone reads a chapter of your story and meets three
characters in that chapter, each of those characters should be, well, be a character.
If they were talking together, their speech would be a little different. One might have an
accent, one might be bad about repeating things, one might curse, another might always
have some kind of smart comeback. If someone has a lot of college behind them, they will
probably use different words and ways of saying things than someone who didn’t even finish
high school. A nurse might compare things to some medical situation, like if someone
blushed she might say that the person’s face was as red as if she were burning up with a
fever. A Louisiana cook might compare a blush to being as red as a fresh boiled crawfish.
If these characters went out for a meal together, they wouldn’t each order a taco with extra
hot sauce and beer in a bottle—unless that was all they could buy there or all they could
afford. Even then, they wouldn’t all request extra hot sauce.
Along that same line, they would each pick a different fun evening, a different kind of movie,
ect… Even if they all went to the same place or the same movie, they would each act and
Different is all you have to remember. We are all different, even twins. I have a good friend
who has a twin sister. I can’t tell them apart by looking unless it’s one of those times when
they aren’t wearing close to the same hairstyle. And yet, if I see one of them in a flower
shop, I know which one it is, because the other one doesn’t care for plants at all. If I talk to
one of them for a moment, after just a couple of sentences, I know which one I’m speaking
too. When we were in high school I could even tell sometimes just by what clothes one was
wearing or what kind of notebook one carried. One liked short skirts, one jeans. One liked
notebooks with animals on it, and one seemed to always have a solid colored notebook with
drawings all over the cover that she did while sitting in class.
So, if a reader picks your story, when she meets each character, even if their names aren’t
used in a section, just by speech, action, taste and style, they should be able to tell which
character is which. And if you know your characters well enough, you should be able to pull
that off with ease.
It just takes a lot of work beforehand to make it that easy later.
You can find a free character chart at http://www.charlottedillon.com/CharacterChart.html
Charlotte Dillon ~ www.charlottedillon.com
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Copyrighted 2008 by Charlotte Dillon