A novel is a story about someone who . . .
Characters are everything. Your reader doesn't particularly need to enjoy your prose style or the period in which your story takes place, or the setting. You can usually keep him or her reading if your characters are strong enough.
There are many genres of fiction: thrillers, science fiction, romances, historical novels, humor. Each kind of story has its own set of fans. Generally, people who read romances don't have much use for thrillers, people who read historical novels don't often read science fiction, and lots of people who read science fiction don't read anything else at all. (Sorry, guys.)
But even though these groups may want different kinds of books, there's one thing they all want: solid, believable characters. People want to read books about people. And if they don't get solid, convincing people, they vote with their hands and close the book.
One of the reasons movie stars make so much money is that they have the ability to put a whole character on the screen, even in a movie in which most of the writing energy seems to have gone into finding new ways to blow stuff up. It's been said that someone like Tom Cruise makes it possible for the screenwriter to skip all the exposition that usually goes into constructing a character. Hell, he's Tom Cruise. He's brave, energetic, resourceful, kind to small animals, and he's got all those teeth. We're on his side. What else do we need to know?
Unfortunately, no one has yet figured out how to put a movie star into a book. That means it's up to you.
So you may have a great idea for a book. How's this? Kidnappers target a rich businessman but accidentally take the son of his chauffeur instead of the millionaire's kid. They demand a ransom that will ruin the businessman. What does the businessman do? Does he pay the ransom, or not? And what does the kidnapper do when he realizes he's got the wrong child? This is a great setup. It was great when Ed McBain invented it in his novel King's Ransom, and great all over again when the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa used McBain's book as the basis for his film “High and Low.”
And you know what? Both the book and the movie would have stunk if the characters hadn't been so strong. The story has the structure and pace of a thriller, but it's really about moral responsibility and courage. The setup is great, but the story is about the characters, and both McBain and Kurosawa understood everything about their characters.
If you'd had that basic idea, you might have gotten it started and even chased it across a hundred or so pages, but unless you knew the characters well enough to make the setup into a compelling human story, with compelling humans at the center of it, you probably wouldn't finish the book. The idea would stop developing. The scenes would go flat. You'd force characters to do things they wouldn't do in a million years in order to keep things moving. You'd lose interest.
If you're going to finish, and if you want to write a book readers will also finish, you need to understand everything about your characters.
It's inevitable that you'll learn more about your characters as you write about them. If they're real enough in your mind, they will surprise you continuously. They will say things you don't expect. They won't want to do some of the things you want them to do. You'll make discoveries about their backgrounds and their beliefs as you write about them. Halfway through A Nail Through the Heart, I suddenly discovered that I had my main character's family story all wrong. He's gone to Asia, in large part, because of deep unresolved issues between him and his father. That discovery threw an entirely new light on his attempts to build a family in Bangkok, and it also provided one of the central plot threads for the next book, The Million Dollar Minute.
I had constructed a family history for this character long before I began to write, but what I discovered in writing about him was much stronger and much more interesting. So I tossed the old story and went back and did a bunch of rewriting, and everything suddenly looked a lot tighter.
A couple of paragraphs back, I used the phrase “discovered that I had my main character's family story all wrong” because that's what it felt like. It didn't feel like I had to make up a new backstory for him. The new story came to me as instantly and as effortlessly as though someone had told it to me, or I realized that I had known it once, but had forgotten it.
This would not have happened if I hadn't already known that character better than I know most of the real human beings in my world.
You have to know your characters pretty well to begin to write about them, but you have to know them very well to learn that you've been wrong about them. You have to know them well enough to let them surprise you, and you have to be open enough to listen when they do.
My advice is to do a lot of work on your characters before you begin to write your book.
Here are some of the questions I suggest you answer, preferably in writing, before you leap into Chapter One.
Who are your main characters? Where did they come from? What kinds of families did they have? Who were they in high school? What events or people helped to shape the way they are?
What do they believe in? What do they love? What do they hate?
What are their secrets? What are they ashamed of? What are they proud of?
What's their sexuality? Does it cause them problems, or are they comfortable with it?
What do they live for? What would they die for?
What are their greatest weaknesses? What are their greatest strengths?
Where are they when they're not on the page? (This is an important question. We readers don't want to get the impression that your characters are off somewhere gathering dust, like crash-test dummies, until it's their turn to pop up on the page. The writer has to remember that all his or her characters have lives that extend beyond the scenes in which they appear. You don't need to put all that material into your book, but you'll be better off if you have it at hand – and a lot of times it will give you the insight you need to get a scene moving.)
And maybe the most crucial big questions of all: What do they want? What are they afraid of?
Remember that one of my suggested rules of writing is to be specific. (It's not just mine, by the way – if you've read much about writing, you know it's something pretty much everyone recommends.) You want to develop broad knowledge about your characters, and you want to use details to put that knowledge on the page.
Details help to bring characters to life.
There are hundreds of things you might ask yourself. How do the characters dress, and why do they dress that way? How do they walk? What do their voices sound like? How do they use their hands? Do they wear a watch? What's in their pockets? Which of their facial features do they like best, or worst? Left-handed or right? Ticklish or not? Do they look at their reflections in shop windows, or hurry past? Do they sing in the shower? If so, what kind of music? Are they shy? How do they demonstrate that – do they speak softly or rarely, hide their smiles behind a hand, stand just outside a circle of people at a party, sit in corners, always let others go first through a doorway, wait for an empty elevator, wear drab clothes, walk close to walls, hang their heads slightly, avoid the eyes of others, keep their own eyes hidden behind sunglasses? (And on, and on, and on.)
Because the point is not just to give your character personal attitudes and behaviors, but to show them to us. Remember, we only know what you tell us, or suggest to us, through action.
And remember, life is short. A reader only has so much time for your book. So if you're going to choose and then present details about your characters, make sure they tell us something about the deeper truths of those characters' lives. If you're going to go out of your way to demonstrate that someone is shy, then that shyness should be anchored in some fundamental aspect of his or her being. If you write someone who wisecracks compulsively, that attitude should be consistent with some aspect of his or her inner life. Maybe the character is a cynic, or someone who's covering up shyness, or someone who craves attention, or someone who learned in school that people didn't beat up kids who made them laugh.
A Little Trollope
If I were chained in front of a large-screen television playing endless reruns of David Hasselhoff doing Shakespeare, and told I'd have to remain there until I named my favorite novel in the English language, I'd probably choose Anthony Trollope's Pallisers series. These six 19th-century whoppers cover an enormous amount of English social and political history, but at their center is one of the great love stories (to me) in all of literature. In the first book, Can You Forgive Her?, a marriage is arranged between an impetuous, somewhat frivolous, very high-spirited noblewoman, Lady Glencora, and the cold, bloodless, extremely ambitious, and almost infinitely rich Plantagenet Palliser. There's no love involved: he wants her social standing, and her family needs his money. Over the course of the five remaining novels, this mismatched pair slowly fall deeply, even hopelessly in love with each other. They change each other in many ways, but he remains chilly and preoccupied with duty; she remains emotional and interested primarily in the moment. But they come to understand and cherish each other, and, when she ultimately dies, Palliser is devastated.
It works on a grand scale because Trollope understands his characters all the way to their bone marrow, all the way to the spot of light at the center of their souls, and because he uses all his skill to make sure we do, too.
That's what we want to try to do with our characters.
Lots of writers, Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway among them, don't spend a lot of words on physical descriptions. They let the characters' voices and actions tell us who they are, and allow us to imagine what their people look like, or they measure out physical details when they help the action – we learn that a woman is beautiful because of the way a man looks at her, for example.
And there's a lot to be said for that. Lots of readers skip descriptions anyway.
But if you want to describe your characters, avoid the “she was a pretty girl” trap. That doesn't tell me anything. I want to see her as the writer sees her. How is she pretty? It's an amazing thing that the same four features – two eyes, a nose, and a mouth – can be arranged in so many billion ways. Is it asking too much that you describe one of them for us?
I believe this applies to physical description across the board. I want the characters to be described, although not at such length that the story stops dead, and I want details. I don't want a face that looks like the IdentiKit blank before a witness fills in the details.
It's not easy for some people (me, for example) to describe faces. Either I come up with a cliché or it's something so generic it should have a blue stripe running down it. It takes a lot of work for me to come up with a face I can believe in.
Here are a few exercises that might help you build up your facial-description muscles.
- Give yourself ten minutes. Imagine and describe five faces. Do it again with five more.
- Go someplace public – a coffee house or somewhere – and take a notebook. Describe the faces of the people you see. Be as specific as you can. Ask yourself what kinds of characters these descriptions fit.
- Create new faces by transposing the features on some of those you've already described. Do the new faces suggest different characters? Which features seem to dominate the faces you've described? Which seem to suggest the most about that person's internal life?
- Do animal faces: get photos of half a dozen animals and create human faces that suggest them. Many animals have characteristics commonly associated with them: foxes are sly, cows are placid, sheep are silly, owls are wise. Do those characteristics emerge in the human faces you created from these animals? If so, turn it around – try to do a stupid fox, a silly owl, a wise sheep. Which features change when you do this?
You can think of more of these. They may or may not help you. But, who knows, you may come up with a face you can steal from yourself and drop into your book.
And no matter what, they won't be a waste of time, because you'll be writing. During my time in television, I had the great privilege of knowing Chuck Jones, the creator of the Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote, and Bugs Bunny. Chuck described to me the first drawing class he ever took in college. The teacher was late for the first meeting, and the kids sat around and waited, and then, gradually, they got up and milled around chatting with each other and doing whatever else college-age kids do when they've got time on their hands. About ten minutes into the class period, the door banged open and the teacher came in. He waited at the desk until the room was silent, and then he said, “What in the world are you doing? You should be drawing. Every one of you has a hundred thousand bad pictures in you, and you've got to get them out.”
From then on, Chuck drew all the time.