How often have we heard of middle-aged people suddenly feeling lost. They leave their families and friends, jobs and homes to go off and ‘find themselves.’ They’re tired of being defined by their roles (wife, mother, husband, father) or being typecast by their occupations. What does this have to do with writing? Your characters may have the same issues.
All too often, an editor will find a story peopled not by characters but by roles. Instead of well-rounded individual characters, the author inserts stereotypes for the sake of the plot. This can happen for a variety of reasons.
If a writer creates a story as a ‘lesson,’ it’s easy to fall into the trap of using ‘stock’ characters– insert annoying younger sister here, new kid at school there. But a ‘lesson’ should never control a story. A plot should evolve organically from a strong main character. A character who is an individual, not a ‘role’, will have flaws and weaknesses that will create a problem. He will also have strengths that allow him to grow and overcome the obstacles. Evil stepmothers and plucky orphans may fill fables and fairytales, but they do not engage today’s reader. Even young children are looking for three-dimensional characters with interesting personalities.
The restraints of picture books and magazine stories can also tempt a writer to fall back on a ‘role’ instead of a character. Writers may feel trapped by the limited word count. How can they develop a character when they only have a few pages and a bare minimum of words to work with? Yet editors tell us that they are looking for strong, quirky characters in picture books; characters that leap off the page and into a reader’s heart.
Secondary characters are another area where a writer can become lazy and take a ‘role’ off the shelf. Secondary characters shouldn’t upstage the main character, but they still need to be well- rounded individuals. Think of your favorite movies and all of the great character actors who won Oscars for supporting roles. Your supporting cast should be just as strong.
So read over your work in progress. Stop and get to know your characters. Make sure they are characters and not prepackaged ‘roles.’ Is that younger sister a person or just defined by her sibling relationship? Is the young princess real when she takes off her crown? Talk to each one of your characters. Let them break away from their ‘role’ or occupation. Make sure you let each one ‘find himself.’ Your story will benefit if they do. Nothing adds zest to a plot like a lively set of ‘characters’ with character.