YWS: The Importance of Knowing Your Characters

Characters are an exceptionally important part of any story. Their actions and reactions to the circumstances in which they find themselves is what drives the story forward. Some authors write detailed character profiles to help them get to know the character better. Others might “sit down” with the character and conduct an interview. I tend to do a lot of “daydreaming” about the character and how they react in different situations … some of which have nothing at all to do with the book.

Getting to know my characters is like getting to know a friend and I need to know not only those things the character will tell me, but maybe even more importantly, those things they won’t say. Because it is the things we don’t talk about easily which are the deepest well of emotion. And the depth is where you find the uniqueness of the character.

So why is it important to know your characters … especially those traits beyond what you can “see”? Because the better you know your character, the better able you are to put them on the page as a real person. Here is an example of what a difference it makes:

When I started writing Speak No Evil, I knew there would be a character in the role of social worker because the main character winds up in foster care after the death of her mother and disappearance of her father. But I didn’t know anything about her/him — the character was like a stick figure to me with no features whatsoever. I honestly thought the social worker would play a minor role in the overall book. The “minor role” wound up blossoming into one of the major support characters for Melody. When it came time to write the first scene with the social worker, I didn’t even have a name … though by that time I knew the character was a woman. So I stopped writing and took the time to get to know Rebecca Prescott.

At that point, I still thought she was a minor character in the book, but over the next few scenes, she proved me wrong. As I wrote, details of her personality and past unfolded, which is fairly normal for first draft character development. I finished the draft and took the work through several revisions, honing and tightening. But I realized there was a gap at the beginning that needed to be shored up. I needed a transitionary chapter to go between chapter one and chapter two. So after the completion of the book and a couple of years, I wrote the “last” chapter to go toward the beginning of the book. The writing went smoothly and only required a little “touch up” here and there because I knew my characters so well at that point.

Then, during the publisher editing process, one of the editors determined that the second chapter should become the first as it set the book up in a much better fashion. He was right. It’s something I would never have seen because I am way too close to the book (and which is why editors are essential.) I could have given a hundred reasons why the chapter should remain exactly where it was in the 2-spot. But I took a step back and looked at his comments from a more objective perspective and his one reason trumped all my reasons combined — the strength of my characters were there on the page and provided the hook necessary to draw readers in.

The editor in question is Jonas Saul, the international bestselling author of the Sarah Roberts Series, which has sold well over 2 million copies. So here is a tip from Jonas:

Think of it like this: you’re writing about a kitchen. Everyone knows basically what a kitchen looks like, so we as authors shouldn’t bore them with kitchen details like, stove, fridge, counters, and so on. Tell them about the cockroach on the counter, though. Show them the kitchen’s age with that cockroach, or the state of cleanliness of the kitchen. It’s my, “Cockroach on the Counter” rule.

Then he followed it with a specific comment about a line of text in the chapter:

The, “You haven’t said a word for almost two years. Not even in therapy,” was awesome. There’s the cockroach on the counter, your originality, your yank-me-in moment. Love it!

If I had written that particular chapter first, it probably would have been a very different chapter … because I wouldn’t have known my characters as well as I did at that point. Rebecca Prescott said the words that ultimately set up the entire novel, and they may not have been said at all, had I not known the character well. In fact, no other character in the entire book would have KNOWN enough about Melody to say those words.

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