Fiction is Folks: More About Character

One of my favorite writing resources of all time is Robert Newton Peck’s Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters. It was first published in the early 80’s and I’m not sure it’s still in print. If you find a copy, buy it! It’s chock full of great advice, much more than I can go into  here, but here are a few gems from the author of dozens of novels including the classic A Day No Pigs Would Die:

Give your character a totem of some kind that relates to his goal. A faded photograph, a military medal, a family Bible…whatever. Let your character interact with this totem. Characters must not think only of themselves; they must act out of concern for others.

Beginning writers often use contrasting physical characteristics to distinguish characters from each other, but dig deeper. Your characters should  be distinct from each other, not cosmetically but philosophically, morally, intellectually.

The reader must know your characters, see them laugh and cry and struggle before the twister hits the farm. Before you show me a dead soldier’s body, show me one of  his childhood toys.

Start with an important issue and ask yourself who would be at the center of a story like this. Think of a burning issue and tell the story through the eyes of a character who gets caught up in it. (Dorothy  here: a great example is To Kill A Mockingbird, which we see through Scout’s eyes.)

Give your characters tools to use. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab uses a nail and a hammer to pound a gold piece to  the mast of his ship–a reward for the first crewman to spot the whale. Tools make sound. Let the reader hear the ring of the hammer on metal, the click of a woman’s knitting needles. Tools show something about character.

Characters must be uprooted from their ordinary worlds. Drama is discomfort. Whether your character travels to a new place, or a stranger comes to town, his or her life will change.(Dorothy again: I once heard a writing teacher say there are only two dramatic plots: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. )

Cowards and villains make super characters. Both types are complicated. The coward has reasons for his cowardice and the reader must know them. Villainy sprouts from frustration and the need for revenge. Cowards and villains must posess both positive and negative points.

Believe in ghosts. The influences, both positive and negative, of the memory of someone who is no longer alive can add depth to your novel.

Invite your characters to a party, then stand back and watch. Invite trouble.

Use Peck’s tips and watch your novel go from good to great. Good luck!