Character matters

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

Joe’s Post #167 — Trying to get re-inspired to write has been a bit of a challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot, which is something I do instead of writing, and this time, my thoughts have turned to character.

I want to make my characters real. Alive. Compelling. Full of good and bad.

I got hammered on a few short stories for lack of character depth. Oh, how much easier it would be to have a written story with theme music and linked sites to show the character’s backstory and they challenges they faced.

But, sadly, I’m not a director. Nor a movie maker. I’m a fiction writer and I need to find a way to bring my characters to life better.

So I looked at the novel I’m reading. No help there. It’s Baldacci and while he’s a best-selling writer and a darned good writer of thrillers, his characters are, at best, shallow and under developed.

Then I watched Babakook with my 13 year old. Apart from being terrified, a light bulb went off. This movie shows people in their worst state. It ripped open their ugly inner selves for the world to see.

And that got me thinking.

Is that what makes a good character?

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireOh, lord there’s a lot of advice on this, but for me, it’s someone who’s complex. Queen Cersei from the Game of Thrones is a vicious, vindictive woman who has sex with her brother. A lot.


Yet, she loves her children unconditionally.  No matter what kind of monsters they are.

She has a code. Protect the ones she loves at all costs.

Even if she ignores all the bad stuff. Like, ah, tossing other people’s children from towers.

Doesn’t that make her more compelling?

So how do I make mine compelling?

Make them less…. Good?


So, I grabbed a glass of wine, sat in my favourite chair and began to challenge my character’s goodness. When my main character is drowning in a WW1 shell hole what if there is someone in there with him? Someone drowning too. Make him not alone. Make it not a lonely struggle.

Good. Hmmm. I’m liking this.

Now, he’s the type of guy who would save the other man. He’s the hero type. But what if instead of saving the other man, in his panic, in his fear of drowning, he steps on top of the other man to free himself? He’s 16. He’s shell-shocked. He’s living out his worst fear…

shell shock What if, later, they called him a hero for what he did in that battle, after he got out of that hole? What if he never told anyone what happened?

What if it became his darkest secret?

What if that moment in the shell hole haunts him forever? Defines him?

Hmmmm. I’m getting closer to making him a more compelling character, right?

Still more to do, but oddly enough, I’m more inspired to write about this guy, and that’s never a bad thing.

So now I need to look at the other characters. Maybe find some good in the villain?


Is this how good characters are made? Or are there any other suggestions?



Critique fallout


Joe’s Post #41 — I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m still processing all that I heard at the Writer’s Retreat.

But as I think about solutions to the issues raised, I wanted to get back to reading for fun, again.

Not as easy as you’d think. It’s a switch from being all left-brained and analytical to right-brained and creative and locked into the pure pleasure of reading.

I couldn’t quite get there and so, while I read David Baldacci, I thought back on what happened at the critique retreat. Baldacci has at least one scene with people talking in a coffee shop.

Didn’t we all ding each other for such scenes?

We did.

But here’s the lesson I learned. There are things that could be fixed to make a better story and things that really HAVE to be fixed. If Baldacci was a new writer, he might well have to rethink a coffee scene, but he’s not and here’s what he does with the coffee scene. There is vital, critical information that the character HAS TO know. There is a chance that they are being watched. And both men come to the meeting armed.

So, does this have to be fixed? No. The reason a coffee scene might not work is lack of tension. Two characters sipping a non-fat, no whip, double-shot dolce cinnamon latte with extra sprinkles and discussing the weather or back-story or nothing that really drives the story forward lacks tension. But add hidden guns, a meeting that HAS to take place and villains tracking them and the coffee scene becomes something else.

imagesCAMVB2MASure it could be fixed. But it doesn’t HAVE to be fixed?

Perhaps he thought it did.

So he made it something more than just a coffee scene.

But therein lies the problem. Can we see in our own novels what HAS TO be fixed vs what could be fixed? Even after a critique. Many suggestions are given. Some contradictory.

It therefore falls back to the writer. To not only hear what’s being said but understand why it’s being said. “I hate coffee scenes” may well be translated into “there is no conflict or tension in that scene.”

Easy, right?


My guess is I have about half a dozen things that HAVE TO be fixed. The rest are things that I will look at and ask myself, does this make the story better? Does it make my characters stronger? Does it increase pacing? Etc.

Because, for me, even if I can make my story even a little bit better, I have to do it.

It has to be the best I can possibly do.

It’s what I owe my readers.