Thursday, August 20, 2015

Author Don't Preach: Making Characters, Not Messages

As the mother of four teenagers, I can tell you that one thing they really enjoy is when you sit them down for a lecture on an abstract concept. Like responsibility. Or the importance of work ethic, or something like that. Boy, do they love to be taught things! You will find, when you start speaking, that a sort of calm comes over them; their eyes will never leave your face. It’s truly a joy to watch the process of comprehension. Oh, and make sure you tell stories from your own life; they love that. Also, throw in platitudes and maxims whenever possible. Watch the lights go on. At the end, they may even thank you for sharing your decades of wisdom. Right?

Recently, I read a couple of books, well-received novels (no, I will not name them) that addressed some timely themes and had well-constructed plots, dramatic turns, wonderful historical and/or cultural information, very competent writing and even some moments of brilliance. And never for one moment did I believe that the characters were actual people. I was aware all along, for example, that this one was intended to show that, and this other one was a symbol for something else, and this last one would be bearer of a lesson for the others. Sometimes other alarms sounded: a manner of speaking that didn’t seem to fit, an inconsistency, a flaw or action too exaggerated. Plot points came along when expected; each character marched along, doing what was required, not quite cardboard but certainly lacking spark and hovering just outside the sphere of believability.

Everything was there; each novel was a success in terms of craft, I suppose. Certainly, my opinions of these novels don’t jibe with the general public’s. But during my reading of each, I started to have very stubborn, adolescent-type feelings. I may have rolled my eyes a few times. I get it, I wanted to say to the authors. I get the point you’re trying to make, the statements you’re making about modern life, the lessons you’re preaching, the feelings you want me to have. And although, as a writer, I could appreciate and respect the craft of these books, they could never be loved by me, the reader. Primarily because of the characters and the way they lacked life.

I don’t know what that special something is, why some characters walk right out of books and into your heart and why others remain on the page. I do know that teenagers and readers alike don’t always appreciate a lecture, but they will listen to a story about someone they can relate to, every time.

“I am less interested in setting, really, than a lot of writers. For me, the landscape is often interior, the place is the psyche.” –Richard Bausch

For a master class on characterization, read anything by Richard Bausch but especially “Not Quite Over,” a short story I re-read this week for inspiration. His characters are immediately vivid, achingly real. For real.


  1. :) great mum who can learn from her teens and respect them for reading the world with healthy irreverence ...
    Thanks for reminding of Richard Bauch. Must look out for his shorts.

  2. Leaving comments here is a bit of a challenge. I had to prove I'm not a robot by matching images of pies ...

  3. Ah, but you can tell loads about a person by how they do with pies ;)

  4. Comparing pies? I wonder if I can do it.
    (Great article, by the way)


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka