- Don’t use stock, cliché or overly exotic names. Do your research and check name books. Rubie goes even further saying not to use alliteration or to use last names that sound like first names (p.51) unless there is a specific reason. Don’t give similar sounding names to different characters because it will confuse the reader. An effort should be made to find the right name for the character so that no distraction is caused to the reader. Names almost always signify something and a clever writer can give the reader clues about their character.
- Don’t use cliché characters or character traits. Make your characters do the unexpected or the opposite of what you’d expect. Hills agrees that “stock characters”, the cliché characters, should be avoided. These are the ones seen over and over again in the same plot and will cause the writer to use stock situations and stock plots. But he adds that a “type character” might be useful in fiction (p. 63). Type characters are the unoriginal characters that represent various groups, the typical hick, cabdriver, jock, or society snob; the Southern gentleman, the tough Italian mobster, etc.
- Don’t introduce too many characters at one time. Try to stagger their appearance, if possible. If they are all introduced together, focus on only one and focus on the others at a later time.
- There should be no confusion over who the protagonist is in the story. Give him a friend and firmly establish him in his world.
- Don’t introduce extraneous characters. Remove extra characters that don’t further the plot. Never introduce anyone by name that is not significant.
- Don’t launch into a story without establishing any of the characters. Characters are as important as the plot. Whitney says to make sure to reveal what type of character they are as soon as possible by what they say and do(p.100).
- Don’t give generic character descriptions or summaries. Use a less expected vocabulary to describe them or give them an unusual characteristic. Describe them without stopping the flow of the story. Browne says to give the reader enough physical description to help them picture a new character, but have their personality emerge through character action, reaction, and dialogue (p. 16). This information may be dispensed a little at a time. The reader can get to know a character a little at a time, like in real life. A character’s history is probably not necessary. Let readers get to know characters from their present lives rather than their pasts (p.19).
- Make the reader care about the character. Make him interesting. This problem is more subjective than the others.
Phyllis Whitney (Guide to Fiction Writing) agrees that a writer must move the reader to emotion and not leave him uninvolved (p. 92). One way to do this is to write from a single viewpoint. Peter Rubie (The Elements of Storytelling: How to Write Compelling Fiction) goes on even further when he says the more points of view you use, the less emotionally involving in its narrative (p.44). Also, you should know how your protagonist feels about the other characters. He should be well-rounded – not all good, not all bad. It is important to know his motivation and understand why he has certain characteristics. He should not be 2-dimensional.
- Be sure the protagonist is sympathetic. Make him likeable.
Jerry Cleaver (Immediate Fiction) agrees with this (p. 88-89) but adds that the reader needs to feel sympathy for the character as well. A reader needs to get to the “deepest cause”, to the level of vulnerability. Raw emotion, anger for instance, won’t be felt by the reader without some background information. He uses babies as the most vulnerable of creatures and says that writers need to get the inner baby, or most vulnerable state, of a character to create sympathy by a reader.
- Don't forget other types of characters such as animals or people who have died before the story begins who can also be useful in stories. But they must belong. They can’t be extraneous trimming. They must serve the plot, says Whitney (p.101).
If these suggestions are followed, Whitney assures writers that the characters will show life signs as soon as they walk onstage. The emotion should be felt immediately (p.100).
Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. New York: Harper,1993.
Cleaver, Jerry. Immediate Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Hills, Rust. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Rubie, Peter. The Elements of Storytelling: How to Write Compelling Fiction. New York: Wiley, 1996.
Whitney, Phyllis A. Guide to Fiction Writing. Boston: Writer, 1982.
This essay was written by Jennifer Sommer in 2007 as a requirement toward the MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults.