Writing Musts: Use Your Characters

It’s been a while since I’ve bought any books on writing. I still read through blog posts about writing and do flick through the books I have at times, but the seek-advice stage of my writing has passed.

It used to be a very regular occurrence for me to go for a walk during a lunch, pop into a bookstore, and then head straight to the Reference section (which was generally where the books on writing would be found).

Part of it was a search for that ‘one missing piece of advice’ that I thought must be somewhere holding me back. The end result of those purchases was the following bookshelf.

Everything on Writing
Next on Hoarders…

There’s a few in there that have been more influential on me than others, but none of them really had the secret to writing. It didn’t seem like they did anyway. There was one piece of information, one direction present in some of them that turned out to be bigger and more and important. It’s bigger than the “you have to read”, bigger than “show don’t tell”, bigger than “write what you know” and just about every other piece of advice you’ve heard – though it’s simplicity, well…

Just keep writing.

That’s it. Honestly. It’s so simple that it feels like a trick, but that’s the key. You can hone a single sentence for days, weeks, months, but you’re not writing. Write it. That’s how you get it written. Making it good, better, best? That’s where the other advice comes in.

While all of those books are great in their own way, it’s the doing that’s a better teacher than reading about it. All of the posts on writing here are an amalgamation between bits of advice I’ve read and lessons I’ve learned. I don’t know everything one can about writing, I’m proud of the pieces I do have here, especially the Writing Musts collection.

All of these invariably go back to me rationalising my way through problems I have with the creative process. If some of what I’ve said feels like trumpets from above, it’s not that I have any greater insight than you do, but that I’m facing the same issue and trying to talk my way through to a solution. Sometimes they’re lessons I’ve learned through the creative act, but writing them down makes them more concrete or known, rather than some vague understanding that sometimes every character should do something nice, or that kind of thing.

Today’s Must? Use Your Characters.

This one comes a little late for me. The perfect timing for this piece of advice would have been a month ago, though I wouldn’t have finished the first draft when I did. That’s okay, it just means there’s a lot of content to flesh out in the next draft.

When you write, you’re using your characters in a way, but what do I really mean? Put them in the scenes, give them dialogue, write them? No, that’s not it.

You know who your characters are. Not just their names, but all about their (for want of a better word) character. You know if they’re calm, cool, clever, cynical, clandestine, complicated or compassionate. Those aren’t just attributes that should tell you how they react to what’s happening around them, but a recipe for the obstacles you need to give them. Give them a situation where those things are relevant, because they dictate how they react.

More than that, think about their function. Minor, major, main, supporting. Hero, villain, love interest, best friend, sidekick, foil. Even when they grow, that’s still why they’re in the story. They’re in to do things.

What are they skilled at? What’s their job in their world, and how is that relevant. If a character is a spy, they’re expected to do spy things. If they’re a firefighter in their day job, it should be clear why it’s important that the character is a firefighter. Hint: FIRE!

This is really just another way of rephrasing Chekhov’s Gun.

Lesser known: Spock's Gun
Lesser known: Spock’s Gun

Characters can be a Chekhov’s Gun. Multiple characters can be. They all have their habits, and they never really stop being themselves, even through character growth. If there’s a section of your novel/story where things either don’t seem to be happening, or it feels like you’re fastforwarding through a series of years to get to a resolution that may or may not have a satisfying conclusion, look at your characters. (Yes, this is a topical reference). Maybe there’s something in who they are or what they do, that could be relevant.

To put it another way, you are (presumably) a writer. When you watch a TV show with poor plotting, or read a book riddled with cliches, how often do you feel that writer side coming out. How often are you walking along, see something and transform it into a possible scene for a story? Your characters are no different – they can’t turn off who they are. Use them.

3 thoughts on “Writing Musts: Use Your Characters

  1. What a brilliant article. Yes, for some strange reason, character attributes can be overlooked, leaving them seeming somewhat two dimensional. It’s one of the reasons I hated sci-fi as a kid and got into writing it (I loved the idea of sci-fi and wanted to do it my way with realistic people).

    Characters are the strength of the story. It’s the characters readers want to relate to, love, hate, know, and it’s the details (habits, desires, motivation) that flesh them out.

    Allowing a character room to react according to their inclinations is one of the essentials.

    1. It’s always been about the characters for me, but for a long time I’ve left the process implied rather than explicitly setting down why a character is present.

      Conversely it’s actually why I’ve always loved science fiction, for the allegorical tendencies that put us into peculiar situations for the sake of identifying with characters that are reflective of larger issues (and not merely topical ones).

      I feel like I can write characters well, but realised I need to be clearer about why certain characters are still taking up space in the narrative. They’re there for a reason and as I tend toward the autonomous disobedient characters that don’t do what *I* intended them to do (all a part of going with the flow of what emerges as natural), sometimes they know why they’re still taking part when I don’t.

      In the explicit case that set me on this, it was feedback from an alpha reader who saw a clear connection between a character and an event, and wondered why I hadn’t joined the two. That today had me wondering about another character who’d actually stated in a scene that they could perform a specific task… and it never went further than that.

      Those two bits are what inspired this particular ‘must’ 🙂

      1. I LOVE it when a character takes off like that! 🙂 I learned early on to trust the process and go along. Some of them have led to amazing things – including turning what began as one book into a series, bringing in the acceptance of seers, the Khekarian/Chiddran war and exiled royalty. Not bad for one minor character turned rogue.

        Yes, for me it has always been about characters. I think it’s a strength of mine, as well. I have never been disappointed listening to what characters want to do, or not do.

        “When I was a kid” goes back to the 70s when the future was seen as a gloomy soulless place. But then I had adults handing me books they thought I should read and “sci-fi” to them meant anytime in the future. Meanwhile, I wanted something like Star Wars, which came later, and I loved Star Trek, which came on television around that time.

        I’ve got one character who tells jokes that I have never heard before!!! No kidding. The first one is totally unique, rude and made me laugh out loud. I kept it. It’s published in book 1. It’s just so ‘him’.

        I love characters.

        If yours are running around and you don’t know why, there’ll be a reason. This is the way writers get some adventure, too – not knowing what surprises our characters have in store for us. 🙂

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