Hi, gang. Craig here again. I’m noticing that my posts tend to be more open ended than the other authors here. Part of that is because there are so many different methods to produce a good story. I like to discuss things and present options. This time the topic is characters.
I’ve been told I write good characters. (Both my fans said so.) I’m also on record as saying the character comes to me during the first draft more than any other time. There is a method to plotting a good character arc though. Readers expect the character to evolve over the course of the story. Imagine taking a conservative or a liberal, and making them accept some opposing points of view to get through whatever hellish torture you have planned for them. This evolution is the character arc.
I tend to write more stoic main characters, and surround them with colorful secondary characters. It’s a cycle I tend to repeat over and over again. For some reason, when I write a buddy story it doesn’t come out this way. The two main characters, on an equal footing, tend to bring all the color the story needs.
I like to assess what I’ve done, and think about what I could do in the future. My writing is an evolutionary process, so lather – rinse – repeat doesn’t quite work for me. Think of it like my own character arc.
To discuss this, I need to talk about some of my own characters. I’m not including purchase links, because this isn’t a promo kind of post. It’s more to get a bit of discussion going in the comment section.
Even though it’s mildly dangerous, I’ve been thinking again.
There are times when we want to tone down some aspects of our writing, and others where we want to step it up. We can plan our characters accordingly, and still come up with a good story.
When I wrote Will O’ the Wisp, I intended for it to be a young adult story. I got a lot of compliments about the character of Patty Hall. In the planning stage, I gave her a mild handicap to overcome. This became part of her character arc. Patty is a teenager, and that means she’s still a child. When writing for a young adult audience, I didn’t want to put her in a ton of adult situations. Her story is scary and she dealt with some frightening situations. This isn’t to say there weren’t some teenage issues, but even when she danced naked in the moonlight, she was alone and unobserved.
I also have a short story, The Soup Ladle of Destiny, that has a child hero. This was a fantasy/comedy, and while I’ve read some funny stuff with adult situations, it doesn’t work with a child main character.
On the other hand, there are times when you want to do a bit more. Two, okay three, of my more popular characters were a bit more over the top. Clovis appeared in The Playground. He’s a brutal thug for hire. One of his hobbies involves what he calls deporting people. He does this by sinking them to the bottom of the Mississippi River and letting the river take them into the Gulf. And yet readers liked him. This is because he had a character arc himself. He shows a bit of twisted friendship with his Chinese neighbor, adopts a stupid dog, and develops feelings for a woman in New Orleans. When he winds up doing the right thing, in his own way, it made people love him even more.
Lizzie and the hat, appear in a book oddly titled The Hat. Lizzie is one of those stoic personalities at the beginning. When she meets up with the hat, she kind of loses it, and the two of them go on a rollicking adventure. Her motivations are stability and playing a bit of catch-up. She took a huge loss before the book begins, dropped out of college, and is trying to stabilize her life so she can return to college. The hat has other plans. These two bicker like an old married couple. By the end, Lizzie adopts a more bohemian lifestyle. She still worries about stability, but concedes that other ways may work. Again, character arc.
I have a totally unproven theory that over-the-top characters are better in small doses. It’s the old “leave them wanting more” philosophy. In Clovis’ case, he is one of three main characters who alternate throughout the book. Smaller portions of him. The Hat is a novella. Enough to leave everyone happy, but not so much the characters become predictable either.
I’m toying with the idea of turning the crazy meter up past ten, pulling the knob off and throwing it away for a character. Readers seem to love these characters. I haven’t done it yet, but it could happen.
Now we’re back to you guys. I postulate that character development is like using the oven. You can’t set it to five-hundred degrees for everything and have it turn out. Do you plan your character arc? Do you consider your target audience? Are there lines you won’t cross in a story? Does it depend on the story? Talk to me in the comments.
Kudos to Sean Harrington who produced this artwork of my spokesmodel, Lisa Burton, on short notice. I’m including this link as thanks for his help over the years.