Do you know who your characters are?

Once upon a time, I had an editor who had edited Pearl Buck, amongst other famous writers, and he told me, use no more than six main characters in a novel. If you have more than that, you have too many overlapping stories, story arcs, plots, etc., and you lose your reader. The reader can only pay attention to so many main characters, and the reader can only care about so many plot lines. And the other thing he told me was: know your characters. This is something they teach (I assume—I hope) in every novel-writing workshop, but when you’re actually in the middle of writing a piece of fiction, you become so aware of how very true it is: you must know your characters.

The best suggestion I ever got was to write down everything about your (main) characters that you could think of; their likes, dislikes, hair color, eye color, where they went to school, everything you can come up with. Then forget you wrote it. Don’t worry about the details of their lives once you’re doing the writing. What matters is that you know, deep down inside, in your subconscious, if you will, that these things are true about your character. You now have what is called a “deep knowing” about your character, and that “deep knowing” infuses every sentence you write about him or her.

Deep knowing gives your reader confidence that they’re in good hands. It implies that there is a backstory to these people that, if you chose to, you could go on and on about, but you know the important points to bring into your piece of fiction, and will not tire your reader with the superfluous stuff. That gives a character richness and depth that is not obtainable any other way. To get to this kind of deep knowing about people, it helps to observe them, and ask a lot of questions… yes, writers are annoying, but it pays off in the long run.

The other very important thing I once learned about making your reader want to come back for more, is that you must show your characters compassion. If you don’t care about them, the reader won’t either. You see this lack of compassion all the time in stories that gloss over the details of someone’s life, and just throw a character out at you that you’re then supposed to care about. It doesn’t work that way in real life; it cannot work that way in fiction. If you care about what happens to your characters, if you are fundamentally concerned for them, that comes through in the writing, and we, your readers, will care too, even if your character is really evil.

Even really evil people have some interior landscape that makes them interesting, makes them human. Not that we have to forgive them–that’s not necessary. But we do have to understand them, if we’re going to be able to follow along behind them, and the only way we can do that is if you understand them, and show us why we should care one way or the other what they do.

The only way you’re going to understand them, it seems to me, is if you walk a mile in their moccasins, or try to, and that requires empathy and compassion, the ability to perceive what another’s life must be like. This is the core of all effective writing, to be able to explain and illuminate the human condition.

5 thoughts on “Do you know who your characters are?

  1. I agree about the number of characters. I thought that a limit of five or six was my own personal choice, but it makes sense. A discussion on the NaNo forum set me thinking about it when people were talking about having as many as thirty or forty main characters. I couldn’t possibly keep up with that many, as either a writer or reader.

    • I know what you mean, because just recently, I was reading something in a writer’s-oriented resource that discussed more than ten main characters, and I was aghast… I can’t imagine the exhaustion for the reader of trying to keep up with that many characters. My editor told me, no more than six main characters, and keep your subplots to as much of a minimum as you can. This is the school of thought that diametrically opposes Charles Dickens’ prolific character creation, but I think even devotées of J.K. Rowling, the most recent prolific-character writer who leaps to mind, will agree that you can’t keep all her characters straight, nor do you care about all of them. Too many characters become extra pieces of furniture, in my opinion, which in real life, I have a tendency to trip over. 😉

  2. I have a difficult time remembering names, so a large cast requires two things: names that are memorable, and memorable characters. If someone has been backstage for a while (inevitable if there are too many), I have to stop and try to recall who he/she is and what he/she’s doing there. It really disrupts the flow of the story.

  3. I have done that many times! The frantic midnight search back through the book to figure out where this guy first came in, and why I should care!? And here I thought I was going to sleep, and now I have to remember Mr. Bad Guy #42, who hasn’t been mentioned for the past 125 pages, and now all of a sudden, it turns out, was NOT a red herring after all, and I should have been paying more attention?? I’m not enough of a juggler to keep all these people straight!!

  4. I hadn’t thought about that part. Yeah, finding out that the character you didn’t pay much attention to and completely forgot is important? That really sucks. There have been several books that made me wish I’d written up a cast list as I went along. Come to think of it, that used to be a fairly normal part of publishing. I remember a cast list for War and Peace, which was very helpful.

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