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This Writing Life: The Importance of Good Characters

18 March, 2011

I’m going to start off by saying that characters are one of those writing topics that you can explore endlessly. Developing them, making them realistic, giving them distinctive voices, etc. etc. What I really want to talk about, though, is something I’ve noticed recently in regards to character and TV programmes.

I don’t watch a great deal of TV any more. This is partly due to personal preference, and partly because my evening job means I’m simply not at home to watch it. There are just a few programmes that I keep up with: Silent Witness, Spooks, Hustle are all good examples. All of these have very short runs of episodes, with much longer periods when they’re not showing. Two in particular tend to go for self-contained episodes as well, so it’s not the cliff-hangers I’m watching for. No, it’s the characters.

All of these programmes first aired at a time when I was watching a lot more TV. The reason I still watch them now – and make a special effort to watch them, in fact – is because I now feel invested in these characters. These are programmes that focus on a small, core cast, developing them sometimes over several years. I want to know what will happen to these people next, and to learn more of their backstories. Regardless of whether these programmes are consistently good (all of them have had weaker episodes), I keep watching them for the characters.

The same holds true for books. There are very few series that I consistently buy these days, but the ones I do? You guessed it: I’m wanting more about those characters I find most fascinating. This is, of course, the ultimate goal for most writers, particularly ones writing a series. They want their readers to keep coming back, time and again, for book after book, and good characters remain the best way to accomplish that. And not only that: I’ve read books that didn’t particularly interest me in other ways, but were books that I read right through to the end because I liked the characters.

I’m not going to attempt to deconstruct what makes a good character, because as I’ve said above, there’s an almost infinite amount that could be said on that subject. Instead, I think it can be enough just to remember how important characters are. When you’re writing or planning a novel, however involved you get in plotting or world-building, always remember to come back to the people at your story’s core. Because they, more than anything else in a story, need to capture your readers’ hearts.

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