Here we are for the 5th installment in this writing tips miniseries! As usual, if you’ve missed the previous posts, you can read them here. I do apologize in the pause between updates, life happened.
But anyway, one of the most crucial aspects to any story is your cast. Your plot and your setting and your prose are important, yes, but most stories require at least one character. Even if your tale is a psychological-centered literary fiction, you need people to make a story a story. And stories that have absolutely no people, but use animals with voices also need to take the place of the characters. A character-less story would be like going to a theater performance with only scenery and no actors. So, they’re important!
What are the biggest dos and don’ts with characters?
~ Don’t have too big of a cast. It’s okay sometimes just to have faces or mention large groups of people, but managing a story with 20+ characters is going to be a huge burden and often will have to be trimmed down for publishing. Some people can pull it off, but generally, it’s going to be easier to have a smaller cast.
~ Don’t focus too much on appearance when you first introduce characters. One of the biggest pitfalls, especially for beginner writers, is to concentrate so hard on the character’s looks and clothing that the rest of the story suffers. Yes, it’s important to know what your cast looks like. It’s terribly boring to read a book where you just have dialogue and not much by way of character’s faces in your mind. But it needs to be balanced. My best advice for this is to make it natural. When you first meet someone, what is the first thing you notice about them? Looks? Voice? Mannerism? And since you don’t notice all these things at once (because, as someone who gets sensory overload, that’s just too much to handle), don’t dump everything all at once. It’s also good to balance it with story pacing. When it’s a slow moment with no action, you can give a detailed description of a character. But when there’s action happening, it’s best to introduce little bits at a time. And since your reader is not going to know a whole history of your character, mannerism and such is going to be best revealed as your reader gets to know them. Especially if your characters are getting to know each other, revealing over time is the best way to go.
~ Point of Views: this is part personal preference, but also something I’ve seen literary agents discuss. Another issue with beginner writers is having too many POV’s. Now, this can depend on if you’re doing third person or first person. I know there are people who pull off both with multiple POV’s, but here’s my basic advice. Try to avoid using multi-POV if you’re doing first person. It can be really confusing to be switching in between heads. In third person, it’s easier to pull off as omniscient voice, but again, don’t have a whole crowd of heads you jump into. Three is a good average, I personally wouldn’t recommend more than five. It can be very tricky to handle and hard for the reader to keep everyone straight. It’s preferred in general to have minimal POV’s and view other characters through main character(s)’ eyes.
~ Another thing that can be very helpful with writing characters is understanding their psychological make-up. MBTI and Enneagram have especially helped me with understanding different characters and explaining the reasons why they process things differently and react to things in certain ways, which can be crucial for plot and character-arcs.
~ Writing marginalized characters. This can be a hot topic in today’s literary world so I’m including this just as a caution. If you’re writing a marginalized character or a whole cast of them, it’s crucial that you do research. Even if you’re writing from personal experiences, it’s never a bad idea to research and also ask sensitivity readers to look over your manuscript. Everyone has a different experience and while some things will be individual-only, it’s a good thing to make sure that you’re representing an accurate picture.
~ Tips for main characters: I personally struggle with having depth with my main character, mainly because I’m so focused on making sure all the side characters are alive and breathing and crucial to the story that I fail to do the same thing with the main character. Regardless of whether you’re using first or third person narrative, be sure to describe emotions, mental and physical responses, and use five senses. Your story will suffer if your MC is just cardboard, I’m sorry to say. So make certain that they are alive in the story. 😉
I’m sure there is much, much more I could say here, but I’ve exhausted my brain for tips. As someone who struggles with characterization, this is one of my weaker areas with writing so I’m not the best expert. But I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned along the years. ^_^ If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment!
See you next post!