Should We Flesh Out Every Character? Does it matter?

25 Mar

Of late I had been working feverishly on short stories for a horror anthology I am working on.  I have made it to the first editing phase now, which is a self-edit sort of deal at this moment.  During this phase, I am mostly adding and subtracting bits, smoothing rough spots, and checking for plot and character issues.  One character in particular, though, stood out.

Babe–as we’ll call him–just wasn’t clicking with me.  I’d finished his story late and had gone to bed.  Yet, try as I did to sleep and forget about him, I couldn’t.  I had worried I didn’t feel as bad for Babe’s death as I should have and I felt that the nonchalance might have bled into my writing.  Above those, I worried such a case would make his death meaningless for future readers.  Bad business for a short story.

Worse, I couldn’t figure out how to fix him either.  He had a small history and a face, he had a righteous goal to fight towards that readers could sympathize with and he was in some seriously deep, emotional pain.  Yet, there he was. . . going out as smoothly as a newly tarred road towards a dead end.

I wrestled back and forth with my Muse to figure out how to fix Babe and make his death sadder.  We argued a while, but eventually she’s all “Why is the reader even supposed to care? His death isn’t what’s important, the murderer is!”  Stunned, I stopped mid-thought.

Hmm. Was it important for me to flesh out Babe more?  Although he spent a good deal of time with the hero, he was less one of the Wonder Twins and more a Robin to the story’s Batman.  He had his place, and his moments, but he wasn’t a star.  That meant it was okay to let him pass with little more than an oblivious shove as readers thronged past to gawk at the killer, right?

Wrong. That excuse can make it by in some stories and cases–deeply depending–but the rule is that most characters with genuine face time need to be flesh and bone.

It occured to me like this: writing is like bus transportation.  Indeed, our buses are our plots, the route is the experience, the drivers are we the writers and the passengers are our characters and readers mingling on our tour through Fantasyville.  The characters invest themselves as the fare.  And that is just payment for our efforts on the one hand; but mostly it’s because readers are critical riders themselves, not charity. They’ve given something valuable of theirs to experience what’s been touted as the best ride our side of Whatever Genre.  Even if the ebook is free, their time is not.  We want them to enjoy the story and to tell people about the wonderful characters they met, not to stare out the windows awaiting their arrival at “End.”  That wouldn’t be the best ride ever, it’d be bus transportation.

I saw this valuable lesson first-hand in a short story that I’d read recently.  A character I should have liked was murdered, and the identity of his killer was important (no matter how out-of-the-ethers the death was–and it was).  The other characters mourned, but I didn’t.  In fact, if I’d given a squat, it would have been in the mental restroom during a rest-stop as I waited for the paragraphs of “sad stuff” to pass.  The impact the murderer should have had on me was lost because I didn’t care about what he did nor who he’d done it to. I was there for the journey, but I kept to myself–busily taking notes of every questionable plot bump for later review to pass time.  Serious bus transportation, and little more.

So, I had to fix Babe.  And imagining him seated on a bus with my readers, I realized that the bits of his bio necessary for relevance were barely heard over the story’s other chatter.  He was as much a loner to the readers as he was to his story peers, which left him flat.  To remedy that, I’ve taken notes on things to add from his past and where to put them.  I can tell the effort has made a difference, even before taking my required break away from the story.  So far, there’s nothing more to worry about here, Babe.  You can rest in peace, buddy.


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easy reading is damn hard writing

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