Characters: The Key to Great Reviews

One of the easiest characters to write is one who is all good all the time or all bad all the time. Those types of characters are not all that much fun to read.  Do you know anyone who is 100% good or a hundred percent evil? If think you do, you don’t know that person well at all. We all have the occasional ugly thought—that’s why writers can produce such lovely murder scenes and malicious psychopaths. Who hasn’t thought of a certain individual and reflected, “I could just kill him!” (or “her”)?

Rod Serling

Chances are good that characters you create are based – at least in part – on someone you know or know about, such as celebrities. None of those people are all good or all bad, no matter how much you love, idolize, or hate them. To make the characters more interesting to the reader—and particularly the reviewer – it’s important that there’s a surface to scratch and something to find under it. Underdeveloped characters can be appropriate in a story, if you are writing a fable, an allegory, or a fairy tale. Even children’s books are more interesting when the characters are multi-faceted.

It seems that crazy people are much more popular in fiction than in real life. Quirky characters can be annoying or interesting, depending on their eccentricities. When writing about personality defects or disorders, psycho/sociopaths (antisocial personality disorder), and various mental illnesses, your best reference is Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSMIV). Because DSM-IV lists symptoms and characteristics it becomes easy to flesh out a character who is suffering from mental illness or a personality disorder. Additionally, browse through the descriptions of personality disorders and you will find a treasure trove of behaviors that might inspire you when developing characters. (DSM 5 should be available in the spring.)

How can you develop multi-faceted characters? When creating a character, decide what is important to him or her. That information does not have to appear in the story, but it will help define the person for you, and that will be reflected in your writing. Research is another vital tool; if you’re going to write a character who is an awful lot like Clint Eastwood, do a little Clint Eastwood research and find out how he’s acted and reacted in different situations and what’s important to him, then incorporate those traits into your character.

If you’re not sure what makes a character multi-dimensional, read Gone with the Wind, paying particular attention to Scarlett O’Hara, a character who evolves throughout the book, is conflicted, and not always the person she appears to be. Conflicted characters can be the most interesting; readers identify with the person who has the devil whispering in one ear while an angel whispers in the other.

As far as that fourth dimension, unless you’re writing science fiction, it’s not something you need worry about. “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man …,” Rod Serling intoned when introducing The Twilight Zone. In the late-80s and early-90s, two biographies of Serling were published. In one, the author reported that when Serling wrote that spiel, someone reminded him that there were only three dimensions; undaunted, Serling liked the sound of “a fifth dimension,” and kept it in the show’s introduction. If Rod Serling can ignore the fourth dimension, surely you can, too.


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