By Chris Pepple, Writer-At-Large, Southern Writers Magazine
Make your characters have depth. Yes, that’s what I tell people when I’m speaking to a writers’ group. I encourage them to reveal enough aspects of characters’ lives so readers can connect to them on a personal level. Give us a glimpse of what your characters may eat or wear. What’s on their favorite hats? Do they have books or magazines on their coffee table?
I recently ran into an interesting situation with an author, however, regarding details about her character’s private life. She was having her manuscript read by some friends in order to get some feedback before publication. Everyone liked the character and the plot up until the third chapter, but then her friends had trouble relating. They didn’t feel the same about the character. What happened? The main character got a pet. That’s sweet, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like a sweet puppy or a cuddly kitten?
The problem wasn’t the puppy or the kitten—the problem was the large snake and the tarantula. The author wanted to portray the character as daring and bold, a little edgy. Nothing wrong with that. But her audience was made up of primarily older women readers. They didn’t want to think about snakes and spiders being in a home. It made them uncomfortable. The pets made them think differently about the character they were supposed to care about.
When you are sharing personal details about a character, you have to ask yourself how your readers will feel about that information. Do you think your readers could relate more to a character who buys a pure-bred dog or a character who stops by a shelter on the way home one day? Do your readers relate to exotic animals well? Would they tremble in fear over a tarantula being in a home?
I’m not making any judgments on any of these choices. I have friends who have pure-bred dogs and rescued ones. I have family members who own a pet snake. But remember that readers often associate a pet with a character trait. You don’t need to alienate your readers with a pet in the book that they can’t relate to.
You also have to be careful how you have your characters treat their pets. If you have a pet in the book, you need to make sure your readers are clear that the pet is taken care of and loved. You also need to research appropriate pet care. Just because you feed your dog fast-food hamburgers every day doesn’t mean that your readers will appreciate that choice in a book.
It’s great to show the personal side of a character, but remember to think through how readers are going to think and feel about the glimpse you give them.