It’s hard to underestimate the importance of character in fiction. This sounds like a trite statement but when you consider that there are people who genuinely believe Sherlock Holmes lived or that our opinion of Richard III has been shaped by Shakespeare’s play of that name, you begin to understand that fictional characters can sometimes bleed over into the real world and take on a life of their own.
When you accept that some characters such as Bond, Bilbo, Dracula and Frankenstein only need a single name for us to identify them as fully rounded individuals, you begin to realise that there are some fictional characters who have made a bigger impact on the world than many of their real world counterparts.
Which is why I will keep returning to the importance of characters.
- Get the name right. Names don’t just help with identity – they also help to establish relationships. I’ve previously pointed out the difference between Dirty Harry and Dirty Harold. Dirty Harry sounds like a cool anti-hero who should look like Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harold sounds like he should be on a register. But, if a young Dirty Harry is being reprimanded by his mum, he’s going to be Harold. Get the name right for the character and the character’s relationship with the person addressing them.
- Describe them early on in the story. Imagine the frustration of meeting Bob the hero on page one, following Bob’s adventures for two hundred pages and growing to love Bob’s attitude to every problem. And then, on page 201, you learn that Bob wears spectacles. And is only four feet tall. And is known by the other characters (who haven’t mentioned it to that point) for always wearing his hair in rainbow-coloured dreadlocks. Describe characters when they’re introduced so that readers can keep that image fixed in their mind as the story progresses.
- Make sure you understand your main character’s role in the story.
- Accept that there are flat and round characters. E M Forster made a distinction between flat and round characters, with the implication that round characters are more integral to the plot. But we also need some flat characters. For example, if my main character buys a coffee from a coffee shop, he doesn’t need to know the backstory of the person selling him the coffee. This is not to say that people who work in coffee shops aren’t important: they’re incredibly important. But the only people important in my story are those characters who have an impact on the plot. And, unless the barista in this story has decided to poison my hero, the only impact they’re having is aiding a caffeine rush.
- Bring them to life through their actions. You can always tell me that your hero is a good, selfless person but that’s a dull way of sharing that information. Show me the hero giving their last £5 to a homeless person, or getting their best suit ruined because they jumped into a dirty lake to rescue a drowning kitten, and I’m going to follow that character far more passionately.
Characters are the lifeblood of what we do with writing. Making sure they’re presented properly is essential to quality writing.