If Walls Could Talk: Let’s Talk Characters Again

M.H. Norris, with some words from James Bojaciuk

Why do we watch TV shows? What makes us come back episode after episode, season after season? What makes us buy merchandise and plan parties?

I’ve said a few times that I’ve learned that people often come for the premise and stay for the characters. Something in the pilot must make you relate to at least one character, and make you want to keep watching.

For example, in Psych (one of my favorite shows, and yes I will happily have a long discussion with you about it if you ask) we are introduced to a couple of character dynamics. On the one hand, we have the infamous duo, Shawn and Gus who have been best friends since diapers and because of an odd string of events they are given the chance to live out on of their childhood dreams. I know I’ve several times compared which one I am versus a friend. I’ll let you guess which one I get the most often. But there itself is something people can relate to. Everyone has a best friend, someone that they would love to grab on go on this kind of adventure with. Whether you’re the impulsive Shawn or the down-to-earth Gus, this goofy duo is endearing and makes you want to keep watching. Then there’s Shawn and Henry. Henry has some of the shortest screen time of the main characters but what little he has in the pilot we quickly see the dynamic between him and Shawn. And for a society where strained relationships with fathers is more and more common, it’s something a lot of people related to easily.

The Dragon Lord's Secretary_Digital Cover

Books take us a to a deeper level when it comes to knowing characters. We get inside their heads, and know more about their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Just recently we released The Dragon Lord’s Secretary, the first book of Nicole Petit’s Magic Realm Manuscript series, and Josh Reynolds’ “The Door of Eternal Night.” Nicole’s Miss Scarlet Chase and Josh’s Charles St. Cyprian and Ebe Gallowglass have this in common: they’re expertly developed characters that beg you to turn the page and turn the page until you’ve reached the end, counting the characters old friends by the end of the experience. (For a more in-depth look at their work, take a look at two recent interviews I conducted with them. Nicole Petit, here, and Josh Reynolds, here.)

book cover the door of eternal night_Final

What makes these characters so endearing?

First off, characters have to be three-dimensional. I’ve mentioned a few times that I was watching a show and while the writing wasn’t bad, the characters fell flat and I found myself a season in and not caring one way or another what happened to any of them.

Good guys can’t be all good, bad guys can’t be all bad. There is a lot of grey in this world, and your characters should show it. That is, if you’re not explicitly choosing to paint in black and white. Superman, Galahad, and Captain America are captivatingly pure because the best of their authors understood the special touches and flourishes necessary to make white shine. Similarly, Hannibal Lecter and Fargo‘s Grimsrud wouldn’t be half so enthralling if flecked with white. Painting with strong colors requires your total attention and talent, though it can be well worth doing if you do it well~though a nightmare if you can’t tell white from black, as in the case of Zack Snyder.

Superman Saves Suicidal Girl_All-Star Superman

One of my favorite things to do with characters is to give them an odd quirk. In Badge City: Notches, Detective Diedre Tordano is addicted to Starbucks (I’m fairly certain she broke records making it to Gold level on the app). In “Midnight,” my All the Petty Myths novella, Rosella Tasoni is hooked on tea (like me) and struggles with a family who loves to butt in on her cases.These quirks can endear a character to your readers. Sometimes it’s fun letting them see that these characters aren’t perfect. Deidre finds the case in Badge City becoming personal, Rosella has a variety of problem that find their way into the heart of the case.

But even then, their problems can help win a reader over. We all have problems here and while books, and television, are used as a form of escape at time, we find it refreshing to see the characters have problems and then overcome them. Maybe we can overcome the problems we’re having, since they overcame theirs. Isn’t that why Cinderella’s story has existed for centuries in various forms? We all want that happily ever after in the heart of some unpleasant circumstances. We all dream and hope.

Names. I can’t write a character without a name. They’re essential to creating characters, for me. When you write a character, sometimes the hardest thing is the name. Sometimes, you want a name that means a specific thing. Google can be your best friend. Lately, I’ve been a fan of the name generator. I use Scrivener to write and whoever had the idea to put a name generator into the program and I should be friends. However you name your characters, I know I’ve spent a lot of time. Maybe I want a regional name, maybe the good old name generator can help me out, male, female, long short, nicknames, like I said, naming can be complicated.

After a name, you can start to work on more about this character. Who are they? Why is their story starting here? What are their hopes, dreams, fears? Why do they do what they do? Best friends, families, I’ll admit that sometimes I can get lost in creating a character.

My first few stories I did anthologies and while there were original characters of my own, many of the characters were created by someone else (so some of this work was already done). But even then, you still have to flesh out the brief description you get; these descriptions are often less than fifty words, so your full imagination is required. That isn’t always enough to write a whole story. It all comes down to the author’s creativity, for better or worse. For example, I had a character given to me for an anthology that was a big flirt, and it was funny imagining that he flirted with a character of mine. When you’re in an opportunity like this, you’ve got to play up the traits given to you, invent new quirks, and have fun with the characters.

Closing up, even with writing, people come for the premise and stay for the characters. If your character doesn’t change and grow won’t be able to sustain a story.

From there, people take a variety of approaches to creating characters. There are websites dedicated to helping you develop your characters. Some people need to fill out several page long questionnaires. Scrivener has a really simple version. I tend to have a name, some traits, some quirks, and an idea of their motivation. In the case of “Midnight,” where I know I’m writing a series, I have an idea of what’s coming ahead not necessarily the mystery itself but in Rosella’s life.

Wherever you find your inspiration for your characters, make sure you take the time to make them well-rounded, relatable, and fun. That way, when your readers come to your book for your premise, your characters make sure they stay until the last page.