Without characters, you won’t have much of a story, and every writer knows how important it is to pay attention to characterisation.
But one of the key things to characterisation, however, is knowing the basics of constructing characters and therefore not making the kind of simple errors that will make an editor cringe when they read your MSS.
Every writer knows that they need fully rounded, three dimensional people to bring their story to life. That means plenty of background information, details about who they are and what they’re about, what they look like, and the kind of things they like and don’t like and so on.
But it’s the simple mistakes that let writers down when they submit to agents and publishers, things that are not always obvious until someone points them out, especially where characters are concerned.
You might think you’ve got great characters, but it’s surprising how some basics are forgotten or ignored.
These 10 basics should help with getting the basics balanced.
10 Character Fundamentals
1. The one thing that will grate on an editor’s nerves is too many unimportant characters inhabiting your story. If they’re not relevant, then get rid of them. If the reader has to spend the time remembering who is who, then there is a danger that the story will suffer, simply because they will be too busy trying to remember or figure out all the characters to pay attention to the plot.
2. If you find that you do have a number of characters, but they’re integral to the plot and you really can’t cull them, then you have to ensure that they are easily recognisable to the reader. The easiest way to do that is to give them a nickname rather than a full name.
Similarly, if they only appear in a couple of chapters, there is no rule against naming them after a characteristic or even their clothing, e.g. Baldy, or Goatee Beard or Black Shirt. Their names are more memorable than John or David or Peter etc.
3. Characters should be consistent throughout the story. Don’t have Joey Bloggs appear in chapter three and then disappear for half the story before re-appearing again in chapter twenty-two. The reader will barely remember who he is, and there is nothing more irritating than having to go back through a book to find out who a character is and what relevance they have to the story.
4. It goes without saying that characters should never become caricatures. Neither should they be so clichéd that they border caricature. For example, these are the kind of hackneyed characters to avoid:
· Rookie cop and streetwise cop. (It’s been done to death in the movies).
· The little old dear who is able to solve crimes. (Murder she Wrote, Miss Marple).
· Madman wanting to take over the world. (Any Bond film and pretty much most films containing mad men wanting to take over the world).
Your characters should be real, unique and individual, not clichés.
5. Although there is no set rule against it, another thing to look out for is having two characters that share the same first name initials, because this could lead to confusion for the reader, for example names like Carol and Corinne.
There is very good reason why many advise against it – editors tend to speed-read through manuscripts and it is easy to confuse characters who share the same initials, and it could lead to rejection if they’re confused by the character names.
On this basis, it’s wise to make the characters stand out in more ways than usual if the reader is to differentiate, for instance, between Margot and Maureen, or Gary and Gerry.
In part 2, we’ll look at the rest of the character fundamentals to follow in order to help your chances of impressing prospective editors and publishers.
Next week: Character basics Part 2