Character Assassination

By CBramkamp Newbie Guide Comments Off on Character Assassination

What do we love about books? What do we remember? Not what, who. 

Follow your CharacterWhy do we love Jane Austen? Because of the intricate plots? Not really.

The story? Please, we know the story.

We love the characters, the strong women who get into trouble because they blurt out what they are thinking, the handsome hero who is just misunderstood, the spunky friend from whom we wish as much happiness as we   wish for the heroine. We love a good character.

Listen to what you say when you play a movie for the fifth time, it’s not about the plot or the story — you just want to see the hero or heroine again.
“I love him.” You murmur under your breath.

Character is why there is star power in Hollywood. Do we watch Brad Pitt because he has a reputation for starring in great plot-driven films? No, we do not. Some people, who will remain nameless, would be happy watching Mr.Pitt sell laundry soap. It’s about character, charm, personality — if that sounds like a beauty pageant, you are not too far off.

Create a great character, Sherlock Holmes, Ulysses, Beowulf, Emma,Chewbacca, Bridget Jones and half the novel, the very important part of the novel, is done. Now, give this great character something to do.

First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.

~Ray Bradbury

There are books and books and web sites and web sites and classes and classes on how to create great characters. There is information on how to describe them, make an astrological chart for them, and write up their back- ground. You can create notes on why or how your character will behave in a certain way given a certain situation. You can control the time line of the character’s childhood. You can know everything about your character: favorite color, childhood trauma; when the parent’s immigrated; the name of their favorite pet now long dead …

All of this work can be excellent exercises, and valuable as you flex your writing muscles; however, most writers will confess that their characters, the good characters, are not so easily controlled. What many of us have discovered is as soon as you think you know everything about your character and as soon as you sit down and think, well today my character will drive to the store, fight a dragon, and fall in love with the prince — they will not cooperate.

Like children, fictional characters are strangely resistant to The Plan. You create the calendar of success according to the 98 books on child rearing you’ve read.  You have calendars marked with developmental benchmarks.  You waver between tiger and Care Bear.

You delivered the children to their piano, trumpet, bongo lessons. You have spent months of your life driving –  to band, ballet, tumbling practices. You’ve spent hours cheering from the side lines during little league, soccer, la Cross.  And what happens?  Your child becomes a chicken farmer, an option markedly absent from the Goals List you created for them on their second birthday subtitled Acceptable Careers Mom Thinks You Should Pursue.

Fictional characters will do much the same thing.
Characters in your story or novel will just blurt out comments, create their own action and in general race away from you leaving you with very little choice except to hold on.

This is good.

If your character, like a troublesome child, has run off the rails, what can you do?

Follow them.

Take notes along the way.

As traits and details about your characters emerge, just keep track.  A separate notebook for this is handy, keep a running reference list on his coffee preference, her favorite drink, what she hates, what he’s afraid of.   This will help with consistency as well as keeping your hero and heroine on track.

The picture will emerge. Write it down as your character comes into focus.

Maybe chicken farming isn’t that bad.


Catharine Bramkamp is the author of Future Girls and Future Gold

as well as the upcoming Don’t Write Like We Talkwhat we’ve learned after three years interviewing authors, agents and publishers.

Listen to the  Newbie Writers Podcast

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