In fiction, as in life, if you try to control people too much, they become tiresome. You have to treat your characters the way you treat your family and friends. Let them solve their own problems. Let them have their foibles. Let them make their own mistakes. Writers know that solving problems too soon or asking your characters to be perfect are the death knells for the plot.
I recently attended a session for writers given by novelist Paula d’Etcheverry, a former successful romance writer who now has set her sites on other genres. She gave a great talk. I receive a few priceless nuggets anytime I listen to another writer. This time, the nuggets were about characterization and how that relates to keeping the plot interesting.
“Until we know what a character wants, we don’t know what the story is about,” Paula wrote in her handout. And also, “Until we know what the stakes are, we don’t care.”
Wise words, indeed. Sometimes we forget that the readers don’t, and shouldn’t, know all that we know about our characters. We have to illustrate their dilemma through their words and deeds.
Paula has her own way of creating interesting characters. She bases them on archetypes—heroes, bad guys, helpers, guardians, truth tellers, etc. To a certain extent, we all have those archetypes embedded in our psyches from past stories and from our own experiences.
Here is the danger: the word archetype and the word stereotype are dangerously close in meaning. Besides that, the word type is one-half of those two compound words. And type is the root word of typical. No writer wants his or her characters to be typical because typical is boring. It’s a fine line to walk between typecast characters and real, human, breathing characters who reverberate within the recesses of our soul. It’s up to the writer to walk that fine line so that the reader never discerns the balancing act.
Those of us who enjoy a more organic method of writing fiction will never sit down and chart characters based on a list of archetypes. For many of us, that is just too pat. But Paula makes the point, and I think she’s right, that without archetypes, stories are too weird for the reader to comprehend.
Here are some helpful lists she gave us. Interesting goals for characters: win, escape, stop, and retrieve. Interesting characteristics for characters: sympathy, jeopardy, likability, humor, and power. Those are all true but a good plot with good characters is so much more. Sometimes I think that it’s simply a gift of the gods.
My published novels, The Legend of Juan Miguel and The Passion of Juan Miguel are available on Amazon.com.