Characters, and Why So Few are Memorable

There is a very old, and very wise, bit of writing wisdom. “Write what you know…” This can be taken too simplistically, and too seriously, but at its core, it’s truth.  The reason most of the characters you will encounter in books, on TV, and in movies do not stick with you is very often they are paper thin. You also must write who you know. Crazy computer hackers always have stacks of monitors, racks of servers, dark rooms with flashing lights and these days at least one screen scrolling symbols like the screen saver that came out after The Matrix. When I see or read all of that, I shake my head.

I’ve worked most of my adult life in computers, computer security, and networks. I have met a lot of hackers and computer gurus. They are more likely to have a single notebook, maybe a server at home with more power… something they can close the lid on and run. Sure, they have gadgets and gimmicks, but what the big banks of monitors and dark rooms tell me is… the creator needed a computer expert, or an evil hacker, and they wrote what they’ve seen others write, rather than trying to dig deeper and find out the truth.

It’s how we ended up with so many Hannibal Lector, high-intellect serial killers, bumbling FBI agents, forensics labs with the time to concentrate a dozen people around the clock on a single case and many other endless clichés. They write well, people “get” what you’re doing and saying… but if you remember those characters it will be for something else they did… not for the characterization, or the dark screen-filled room.

So, how does that relate to writing what you know? You have a perspective. You have your own skills, knowledge, and you have your ability to research. If you write about a plumber, you are going to write about a plumber in the context of your experience with plumbers. You can widen your perspective by reading, actually talking to plumbers about what it is you need to happen, how it would play out in the real world. Even then, it’s wise to limit yourself to writing about your character, and embellishing that character with as much reality as you can without going too far and writing or having your character say something that will push buttons on readers who know more about plumbing than you do. It’s tricky business.

I recently read a pretty good mystery by an award-winning, Internationally bestselling author. It had a lot in it about falcons, and raptors. Repeatedly, he referred to them (and had his character who was purportedly an expert) refer to them as “raptor birds,” instead of simply raptors. I love raptors. I’m not an expert on them, but it was enough of a faux pas to really grate on my nerves, and if it affected me that way – I have to believe that people who know about falconry and birds of prey would be squirming – and they would have to be at least a peripheral market for the book.

It’s even trickier when you start writing about specific characters – say – a theoretical physicist. You are safest writing such a character as a person, and avoiding attempts to cleverly let people into their theoretical thoughts, or going too far in describing things. Most people know about Schrödinger’s Cat, and a few bits and pieces about chaos theory and string theory from The Big Bang Theory and Jurassic Park… but that is the paper-thin character I mentioned above. If you are not capable of thinking like a theoretical physicist, you should write the parts of that character that you can understand, their life, loves, tics and prejudices, but not try to pass yourself off as an expert in their field.

What you know is how you see people, how you see men and women you’ve met and interacted with, the things about certain types of characters that you would expect to encounter in a real-life scenario. Characters who matter to you will matter to your readers… characters who remind them of every other character of a “type” they have ever encountered, will not.

In keeping with the theme of this book I’m writing, don’t forget that you don’t like everyone, and some people you like to obsession, or love, or crave or loathe. If you are afraid to reach that level with the characters, you may write a darn good yarn, but a year after reading the book, no one will remember them.