why writers can not afford to judge their characters

Why Writers Can’t Afford to Judge Their Characters

Why Writers Can't Afford to Judge Their CharactersEvery once in a while, a reader will ask which of my characters is my favorite. Usually, I come up with an answer based on the whim of the moment. But really, no matter what I say, it’s a lie. I don’t have a favorite character. As an author, I can’t afford to.

If you’re like me, then your story ideas will almost always originate with a character. An intriguing person comes knocking at the door to your imagination, and you’re instantly swept away by the wind (sometimes a breeze, sometimes a gale) that blows through the door when you open up.

You’re fascinated, you’re enthralled, you’re curious, you’re obsessed. It’s a lot like falling in love, really. During the mad rush of the early creative stages, you’re taken up by this one character (or sometimes two), to the exclusion of every other character.

But when the time comes to sit down at your desk and put pen to paper, you have to put aside your overwhelming fondness for this person—and be willing to love every other character, even the antagonist, just as much.

Why Writers Can’t Afford to Judge Their Characters

Your feelings for your characters will inevitably trickle through your words and ooze up between the lines. Readers will know if you dislike a certain character. They will look at the words you write about your villain, and they will see you are judging him, even from his own POV. And in that instant, your story’s verisimilitude implodes.

In many respects, an author is an actor. When you write from a character’s POV, you must become that character—and that means that if you fail to love him, you will fail to understand him and, as a result, end up looking down your nose and sermonizing.

Renowned short story writer Anton Chekhov said it succinctly:

The artist should not be the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased observer.

Loving your main characters is usually an easy enough business, since main characters tend to be lovable sorts in general. But sometimes stories demand that even the protagonists are less than likable (classic literature is full of characters such as Scarlet O’Hara and Rodion Raskolnikov). The only way to convince readers to care about what happens to these people—despite their crimes–is if the author himself cares.

The Author’s Foremost Job: Empathy

Get under each character’s skin. Figure out why they do what they do. If you’re not willing to accept their reasons and admit you understand them, you probably don’t know these characters well enough to be writing about them. No character is black and white—not the hero and certainly not the villain. Sometimes the hero and the villain are the same person, except for the fact that each took a single step in a different direction.

Once you’ve figured out and accepted your characters—all of them—don’t be afraid to take an emphatic narrative stance toward them. Don’t waffle, and don’t apologize. It’s not your job to shake a finger at their naughtiness.

Chekhov again:

Let the jury judge them [the characters]; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.

Love your characters enough to understand them, enough to forgive them, enough to accept them. If you don’t, why should your readers believe in them?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever had trouble loving any of your characters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Good post. I think an exception is when you never write from the antagonist’s POV. Still, though, you’re right. The writer should pour all the care and attention into each character, lest the quality of their story fall.

  2. Even if you’re not writing from the antag’s POV, it’s still important to understand his motivations.

  3. great post! i agree. i must act it all out, feel every emotion, walk through every situation, spew out their dialogue exactly how they would- for this, i needed to devote myself to each character. in the very first novel i wrote, one of the antagonists appeared in only two chapters and spoke only about four lines; she never even had a name, but i know i loved that character just as much as every other.

  4. This is a great post, and yes it is very important to love your characters. It took me awhile to figure that out with my antagonist, but once I developed her backstory, I had so much fun writing from her POV.

  5. @glasses: Loving our antagonists is always an interesting journey. Sometimes we even end up mourning for them as we watch their poor choices destroy what could have been amazing lives.

    @Jessica: Writing fascinating antagonist POVs is much more difficult than it sounds. Any writer who can pull that off has an ace in the hole.

  6. @glasses: Loving our antagonists is always an interesting journey. Sometimes we even end up mourning for them as we watch their poor choices destroy what could have been amazing lives.

    –Amen!
    I have one POV charrie who’s her own worse enemy…I hate her cause she’s so nasty, but I just want to hug her and tell her she’s loved by God.

  7. Even in the most despicable character, there’s always something worth pitying, worth loving.

  8. Very good post! I know what you mean about “falling in love” with one or two characters in particular– I’ve done that too and it’s not good for the other characters. 😉

  9. It’s inevitable that we’ll *like* some characters better than others (just as we like some people better than others), but, as the creator of our story worlds, it’s important we love all our creations.

  10. Good information and something to keep in mind as I write the sequel to my latest novel…thank you for the twitter friendship.
    I listed you on my blogroll.
    Blessings,
    Mid http://midspoint.com

  11. Thanks! Looking forward to tweeting with you.

  12. Nice article. Asking an author his favorite character is like asking your mom, who is her favorite amongst you and your siblings.Btw I love the picture for the post 🙂

  13. A while back I re-read my first unfinished NaNo draft and realized that its crucial failing was this very problem – there were evidently a few characters that I was particularly fond of, but for the rest I couldn’t feel any kind of affinity. The thing was, all those others were important to the plot!

  14. @cookkamikazecat: Good writers are a lot like good parents, even down to the disciplining our children even when it hurts.

    @Elisabeth: Character is arguably (although, for my money, you can remove the “arguably”) the most important part of any story. Gaining an affinity for them is vital.

  15. Perhaps one of the best loved villains in literature has got to be Darth Vader. He was loved because he was such a well-rounded character. And I believe he was such a well-rounded character because he was loved. I think the argument can be made that if your protagonist is nothing but good qualitite you’re not going to love him much. Nobody loves a cardboard cutout. Nadine Liamson

  16. Couldn’t agree more. In the midst of that which is most evil, there is some good. In the midst of that which is good, there is always something bad.

  17. Wonderful advice! I’ve never been able to pinpoint a favorite character. Usually, it is just whoever I’m working with at that moment. 🙂

  18. That’s the way to do it! Love who you’re with.

  19. And start loving the journey of fiction much more by meeting these new peoples and making them friends 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Well, I don’t know that I’d go that far. :p We have to have experiences coming into our lives if we’re going to have worthwhile writings coming out.

  20. This is a good post. I never thought of that. Victor is a good antagonist as well as Samantha, but they are definitely not the kind of people you would want to be with or like.

Trackbacks

  1. […] can’t have a favorite character when they are writing a book, and she tells you why in this blog post.  She says that it really affects your writing and I’ve found that this is true.  A few […]

  2. […] it’s important to care for and love your characters. “Love your characters enough to understand them, enough to forgive them, enough to accept them. If we fail to love him, […]

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