NaNoWriMo 2013 – Cardboard Characters

Don't be a puppet for the Empire!One of the things a writer can hardly avoid is characters. Almost all stories have at least one character, most have several. You have a story you want to tell, there are more characters in there than just the main character, so how do you keep the others interesting?


There are two kinds of characters. Viewpoint and (doh) non-Viewpoint. Which can be subdivided into sidekicks, supporting cast and extras.
The Viewpoint characters have their story told from their perception. The story enters their mind and the camera shows the story unfold through their eyes. Since George R.R. Martin‘s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series the multiple viewpoint books have risen in popularity, both by readers and writers. This is however an old construct that existed pre-Martin. Nexus (then called “ZaakX”) already had that structure, and many more books do.


Depending on the length of  a story you can introduce more viewpoint characters. Showing the story through a viewpoint character helps making him or her come to life. Giving them a viewpoint allows you to cheat. You can write what the character feels and sees. Write their thoughts. And when the reader knows the thought, the character suddenly becomes a person.


But what can you do when you are writing a short story or a novella? Or just not epic fantasy with a huge cast? Creating viewpoints for five or six characters for a 50.000 words story is madness. You can  do that if you like, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t. In most cases it doesn’t do the story much good though.
So, you do like any good writer does: create one (or maybe two if you feel experimental) viewpoints and bring the rest of the cast to life from the main character’s point of view. Easy. It is what most books do.
Things get complicated when you have a very large cast of characters who are all essential to a short story. When your story edges into the realms of character studies or *couch* literary aspirations.


Short stories don’t allow for much characterization. The story must be condensed. Stripped to the bare essentials. You don’t have whole chapters where you can gently introduce each and every one of your beloved characters… you have less than 50.000 words, you have a cast of about six or seven characters and a story to show. How would you do characterization in that context? One has to do characterization, or they would be all cardboard. Cookie-cutter people, having form and shape, but no life.


Really, I’m asking you, how? I can tell you how I do it, which is by no means ‘the way’. I’m not even sure if it is going to work. It is something I used to do when I had to do school fiction-writing assignments, a very long time ago. For my day job I do the same in fact, even though it feels a bit silly and I am by no means a writer in that context.


My secret? I create a file on all characters, viewpoint (of course) and non-viewpoint. That file is in Scrivener, just as the rest of my research, reference guides and actual story.
The file consists of at least a sketch of the most important character traits. Motivations, physical appearance, purpose in the story. I brainstorm in those pages, sometimes I add photos that show how I envision that person, photos of people and situations and landscapes. Sometimes I write down music that describes them best.
Slowly I get to their role in the story, and with that, the story itself.


I do this for viewpoint characters, but in less detail for non-viewpoint characters as well. Why? I may not even include anything of what I write about them in those files.


Easy: By making them real people in my head, that translates to how I write about them. If I know their mannerisms, that trickles through into the words I choose. Maybe I won’t actually tell you anything about their backstory. Maybe I won’t write about what an awful day they had yesterday and what they had for diner… but for me knowing what happened means that I know how it influences them today, at this point in the story.


Make the supporting characters, the extras, real for the writer and the writer will bring them to life for the reader. It is (for me) as simple as that.


If you ever spot a cardboard character in my story — and I’m an aspiring writer, not an accomplished one, so there will be many — that means I still have to create a file on them. I haven’t fleshed them out as much as I should, or even at all. I tend to get lazy and skip it when I’m eager to write.


For this NaNo story however it is very important that I do cover these basic steps. It keeps me from writing a story, and that’s terribly frustrating. But it pumps blood into the cardboard.


Okay now there a visual I really shouldn’t have conjured. I hope you know what I’m trying to say. Make them real. Make them flesh and blood people with a back story, quirks, habits, personality, jobs, likes, dislikes, aches and joys. Write all of that down somewhere… and poof. Magic.




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One Comment

  • Thanks for the pingback! I love your views on cookie cutter characters. I’m writing a first person story about a person who is a victim of sexual assault and I’ve been considering throwing in just one or two (SHORT) chapters from her attacker’s viewpoint near the end if appropriate. Just something I’ve been mentally throwing around. I’m going to bookmark this for later re-reading. Feel free to add me on NaNo (username: slaasrs) as a writing buddy 🙂

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