Would you feel comfortable asking your characters out to dinner?

Anthony Hopkins at Hannibal Lecter
Anthony Hopkins at Hannibal Lecter

So you’re going to write a novel. You’ve decided to play God one more time.

You look at the screen in your computer and begin building a new world, or maybe it’s an old world, a leftover from your previous novel, the door to a sequel that has been bouncing around in your head.

You already know your old world. It, perhaps, just needs a few finishing touches.

Creating new worlds is little more than playing with matter that matters. Towns. Buildings. Streets. Landscapes. Mountains. Deserts. Swamps. Highways. States. Or even countries.

You can make them any size. And any shape.

The only architect you need is your imagination.

Now come the most important ingredients of all.

Now come the characters.

You can’t simply make them up, give each of them a name, slap them on a page, and hope they do something.  Stick figures kill off a story quicker than a shotgun blast down main street.

That’s not particularly my opinion or an epiphany that came to me in a flash of light in the middle of the night.

As I’ve said many times, I’m a thief. I steal from those much smarter than I am, which means I have carte blanche steal from most anybody and usually everybody.

I think, however, that author Leslie Gordon Barnard explained it best when he said, Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people in your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.

Amanda Syfried in Les Miserables
Amanda Syfried in Les Miserables

Characters aren’t just a bunch of names scattered or scribbled on a page.

They breathe.

They think.

They plot.

They scheme.

They’re in love.

They’re afraid.

Their irritating.

They annoy the hell out of you.

They’re rich.

They’re broke.

They may steal from you.

They may kill you.

And you know it’s true.

As author Leigh Bracket put it: Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other, and finally there is an explosion. That is plot.

And so it is.

I have this one basic rule about my characters. If I can’t take him or her out for a steak and bourbon simply because I enjoy the wit, wisdom, curiosities, and conversation they bring to the table, then I don’t have a real character.

It’s like an audition for a play or movie. If we can’t have an enjoyable dinner together, the character, no matter how much I thought I might like him, or her, simply doesn’t get a call back.

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  • One thing about these rascally characters: if they are REAL characters, they won’t let you write the book. THEY write it. They go places you wouldn’t even write about and do things you wouldn’t even have them do (with a pen). Some of it you even have to cut out later, but it is wise to “see what they are up to” with pen poised. I had one set of characters that kept putting humor in a book that did not include humor–I left it in. It made it a better book. Yes, I would have taken them to dinner, gladly.

    • I’ll take my characters to dinner but only if we go Dutch treat.

      • And it helps to have good characters if one is “a character” her/himself. Nicely put, Caleb.

  • Oh yes I would, especially Timber. Don’t know who Timber is – well you’re missing out.

    • I think you’d dine with any of your characters, and they would be better for the experience. But the only real character you have in your life is named Bert.

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