Characters who are easy to live with

With two series under my belt, I have learned a thing or two about what makes a character ride easy on his or her writer’s mind. It’s not that you can’t break these guidelines, but you should be aware of the problems inherent in them. These guidelines refer to your major character: for first person, the narrator, and the protagonist if that is a different character. For third person, the POV character and the protagonist, if different.

1. Write a character who can travel
Without fail my stories “get interesting” when the characters begin to travel new places. Writing a character who is stuck at home is a prescription for … well, you’d better be toned up to do some heavy emotional lifting. It isn’t that you can’t write a great story that happens in a very small setting–some of the best stories ever written are like that–but it makes infinitely more work for you, the writer. I learned this in the Settlement trilogy after Anna had a baby, which severely hampered her ability to move around. Ditto for Alex at the end of the third Settlement book, and that’s why I have reservations about writing a fourth one.

2. Write a character who is independent
A character who either relies on someone else to get them through life, or a character who has to take care of someone else, is a character with a millstone around her neck. Derring-do of all sorts has to be carefully orchestrated for this character, so think really hard before you attach your main character to another. Of course this can be the basis for a delightful story: the “handcuffed together” trope is always fun, as is the “guiding a stranger in a strange land” story. But once again, think real hard about how it will affect the story before you do it.

3. Write a character from your own background
This recommendation is motivated by sheer laziness. If a character comes from your background in terms of time frame, nationality, socioeconomic class, race, gender, and orientation, you’re pretty much in clover. You know exactly what idioms and metaphors that character is going to use. Every point on which that character deviates from you is a point you need to think over, carefully. Anna Woods was an easy narrator for me: my own age, nationality, gender, and orientation. Perry Drinkwater was a whole different can of worms. She comes from a society that has never seen the ocean, so maritime idioms were out. Sports idioms were out. Firearm idioms were out. Her world doesn’t have clocks, so references to seconds and minutes were out (though I kept “hour” as a general indicator of “a long time, but not a whole morning or afternoon”). It’s just a lot of work–specifically, a lot of editing–to write a character like this. The ultimate result can be much more interesting for the reader, and the writer can learn a lot along the way, but it’s another thing to be aware of.

4. Write a character with a fun personality
This applies more specifically to a first-person narrator than to any other major character. The voice of your narrator sets the tone of the whole book. A fun, warm, intelligent, humorous voice makes a book more appealing, and gives readers warm fuzzies even if terrible things are happening in the story. Think of Claire in the Outlander books. Really awful things happen, but you have your can-do jolly adventure buddy along for the ride, so you still want to read. Ditto The Bear’s Wife. Ditto–and this is 100% my personal opinion–the 50 Shades books. The Settlement series is overshadowed by Anna Woods’ withdrawing, slightly odd personality. It gives the books a savor that I like, and that plenty of readers like, but Anna quite definitely colors everything that happens.

Hope this helps!

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One thought on “Characters who are easy to live with

  1. Words of wisdom for writers, just wish I had the discipline and dedication it takes. I have trouble even keeping up my blog! Have The Bear’s Wife on my kindle, but have enough discipline to finish the book I am reading before diving into it.

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