Perhaps this is the first among many problems self-published authors have when they write a work of fiction: lousy characters. In a work of writing, readers expect to find themselves lost in another world where the people they read about take them on a journey that offer conclusions everyone can make on their own. In cases where writers do not take characterization seriously, then it only means one thing, rejection.
In this section, I will show how authors may lose their readers from the poor character development that employed from the moment they mention the names to the end of the first paragraph. Even though there is no such thing as the ‘perfect writer’, I will try to offer the best type of advice to the author from a reader’s standpoint. Hopefully by citing a few reputable sources, I will be able to establish a persuasive voice in the self-publishing world.
Character Blunder #1: The Names
As Steven Minot pointed out, “characters have to be interesting in some way” in one form or another; in this case, I strongly believe it starts with their names (141). A name is not something to take all too lightly, if someone is going to read your work, you better have a name that’s memorable, but not in a negative way. Oftentimes, the authors commit the opposite. Whenever they start off with the plot, authors use character names that sound either lame or socially awkward. This is not what you want to do to the reader. If there is anything you want to do with your novel or short story, think first about what you are trying to say. Using lame names with a “special and unique” twist is not going to get anyone interested in your book (Schmidtberger). That is almost similar to trying to find the ‘special and unique’ ways to sharpen a dull pencil.
I remember distinctively picking up a book where the name Jensen was the character’s first name. Despite the fact that the book seemed relatively interesting, I could not wrap my mind around the name. Why? Because of the name did not fit with the story. The novella was about a faerie’s fantasy world and the name sounded like it was the nickname of a professional football player. The only thing I wanted to do was ask the author if Jensen needed jock straps or cleats (the main character was a girl). Whether the intended audience is for the reader or yourself, the first step to a good character is the name.
So, if you are going to start with the name, where’s the first place to go? Character development is similar to the development of a child. If it’s coming to life by the stroke of a pen, then the name needs some thought. Like most concerned parents, an author has his or her places to go for help. One of which is a baby names book. At least there at your fingertips, you have the capacity of forming names without ever having to worry about not knowing what those names mean or how they turn out. Other folks tend to turn to Hollywood Celebrities for role models in character naming. Ideas like Reign Beau, Keelee Breeze, Jermajesty all sound quite imaginative, but I can tell you that no one is ever going to take your character seriously unless you are trying to write for humor’s sake.
If you are not interested in looking things up in the Baby Names booklet, there are plenty of other avenues to naming your character including periodicals, novels, movies, the Bible etc. You can even delve into foreign words to make your character, and that’s only the beginning. As long as the name is memorable and possesses meaning, then your story will come out at the top.
Character Blunder #2: The Introduction
If there’s anything that readers don’t want authors to do in general, it’s having the need to remember lots of information within the first three chapters of your book. Readers have no interest in being swamped by all the characters you want to introduce throughout the book, especially at the novel’s beginning. There was a book an author sent to me for submission which I had to put aside because I grew tired of being swamped by the characters. I remember reading one guy’s prologue where he mentioned at least ten different characters! That’s just way too much! Starting off with the right amount of characters is much easier than you think. At the beginning of any novel, introduce at least three to four characters at the beginning and by increments introduce 1-2 characters at a time. I would not necessarily jump into producing your entire cast within the first five chapters, but have them all known by the end of the book.
Character Blunder #3: The Relatiionships
I’ve seen a lot of good authors come and go through the self-publishing world without an entire idea about how important it is to know about character relationships. Stating that character X is my girlfriend or character Y is my brother’s sister is not enough. If you are going to include a cast, there has got to be a character back drop you are willing to reveal to the readers that take their time to read into your work. If the plot is crappy, but you got a likeable character, there might be a chance for you to get readers to examine the book. Why else do readers take interest into reading your work? When there is much to say about your character, the more in depth the story becomes and achieves the ability of verisimilitude.
Take the character Louis Bancroft from my book:
“Clark knew the man as Louis Bancroft, whom he had been working with for the past decade. Despite his odd coloring schemes like wearing myrtle-colored socks and champagne neckties that never matched any of his outfits, he enjoyed being his biotechnician. Working for Bancroft Enterprises had its ups and downs with the regular task performance, but there were more times where things went upward despite the offbeat days.
Since his entry position twelve years back in 2025, Clark always gained a promotion for his hard work and overarching success. Eventually, these steps took him to the point where he worked with the CEO. In spite of the job’s high demands, he still loved its challenges. With his own qualities and interests, there was the belief he and Bancroft shared the same goals. Even with his politeness and innovative vigor, those qualities were a plus.”
By this description you already know a couple of things:
- Clark loves challenges at his workplace.
- Clark believes he and Bancroft share similar interests.
- Clark worked for Bancroft for a decade.
- Clark works as a biotechnician.
- Bancroft is polite.
- Bancroft does not have an aesthetic taste.
- Bancroft is polite, innovative, and possessed Vigor.
Suppose I was to say that Bancroft was just ‘a polite CEO’ where do you suppose I would be with the book?
Answer: The Garbage Can.
If I don’t bother to say anything worthwhile about my characters, the story becomes yucky and bland. A more specific term for this would mean that the reader begins to think the character is flat. If there are no additional tweaks that make your character believable, the chances with this book being read are almost impossible. Why? Because you’re not making your readers think and that’s what an author is set out to do.
While there is more to say on the topic of character, I am hoping that these few examples will be beneficial in serving as a guideline for better writing.
Minot, Stephen. Three Genres: Writing Fiction/Literary Nonfiction, Poetry, and Drama (8th Edition). New York: Prentice Hall 2006.
Schmidtberger, Paul. “Complaint Box | Brittney, Brittny, Brittneigh.” New York Times. 7 May 2010.