Five Rules for Lead Characters To Live By

I want to thank Martha Ann Kennedy and her blog post “My Rules for Good Writing” for this idea. You just never know where an idea will come from. Thanks, Martha.

1.Get to know your writer.

She won’t bite. She needs you just as much as you need her. Sure, she may put you through a beaucoup of manure. It’s okay. That is her job. Things will work out well in the end. Ask her questions about your role in the story. If you make her like you, you might get a return engagement. Series have been built around characters who have made nice to their author. Just look at Harry Potter. Seven books just because he said please and thank you and ma’am. Believe you me that boy knew exactly what he was doing. And guess what? His author may be bringing him back.

It wasn’t that James Bond and Tarzan were so popular. It was that they gave their creators a warm, fuzzy feeling. So ask your writer if they like wine? If they do, there’s no rule that your can’t give them a nice bourdeaux. Maybe she’s into clothes. Give her a new pair of shoes that fit comfortably and look great and she will be your friend for life. Just ask Scarlett O’Hara. Tomorrow may have been another day, but shoes got her the job. Jake Barnes knew his Hemingway. He gave Papa his first typewriter. It was Jay Gatsby that showed Fitzgerald how to get Zelda to marry him. And Huck Finn taught Mark Twain everything Sam Clemens knew about humor.

2.Let your writer get to know you.

You think Holden Caulfield was invented in a day. Absolutely not. Ol’ Hol was sharing his stories with J. D. for years. Originally Sal was only going to put Hol in a short story. Hol kept telling his creator more and more. Pretty darn soon Sal had a whole novel.

So tell your writer everything. How you wet the bed till you were seven. How Mary Lou Wizzama broke your heart when you were eight. How you almost died of the flu when you were nine.  Don’t forget the secrets either. How you almost got caught shoplifting when you were twelve. You just had to have that first number of The Flash comic book. How you were dumped by your first girlfriend because she didn’t like the shoes you were wearing to the prom.

Stuff like that. Believe me. Your creator will love that kind of stuff. And if you don’t have any interesting stuff, make something up. When he finds out that you did make it up, he will be impressed. It means you’re ready to work hard in your role as a character. He might even promote you from sidekick to protagonist. That was how Huck Finn got his lead.

3. Dress appropriately.

I can’t tell you how many characters have shown up on set in the wrong duds. Othello showed up in a kilt. Talk about mad. The Bard was livid. Tom Sawyer showed up in a suit. Mark Twain just about laughed him off the set. And that Nick Carroway of Gatsby fame. He thought Fitzgerald wanted him to be a cross dresser. F. Scott was drunk for a whole week over that one.

Do some research. Find out what time period your character is supposed to be in. Have a little looksee at your character’s resume. It will keep you out of all kinds of trouble. Dickens fired a character once because she thought she was doing Jane Austen. Jane Austen was very forgiving. Mr. Darcy thought he was playing Tom Jones’ daddy. Can you imagine?

4. Choose your friends wisely.

Loners don’t make it in the story business. Don’t forget how useful Doctor Watson was to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock had a good eye for character and Watson was his man. Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” got his job because he coseyed up to Nick Carroway. And talk about great sidekicks. How about that Tonto? Originally The Lone Ranger saw him working in a raid on the wagon train in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He knew he was the right sidekick the moment he laid eyes on Tonto. Besides nobody else in Hollywood could say kemosabe with a straight face.

Remember this character can save your butt in a tight spot. Don’t forget that Gretel would never have been able to get that witch into the oven without Hansel. Dick Whittington would have been nowhere without his cat. Do you think Dorothy would have ever made it back home without Toto? Absolutely not. And Peter Pan could never have found his way to Never Never Land without Tink. She was his GPS Navigator. I’m telling you sidekicks matter.

5.Don’t forget to join the Character’s Union.

It will save you a lot of heart ache and pain. There are characters who absolutely refused to join. Look at them now. Take Hamlet. He could be a rich character. Every performance would be bring in a royalty. Hundreds of times a year, that is how many performances go on. For each of those performances he would bring in the big bucks. Could be living in a mansion. Instead he’s forced to live in a trailer park. He can barely pay the rent on that run-down trailer of his. Last I heard he was a neighbor of Honey Boo Boo’s. Can you imagine how humiliating that is for one of the best known characters in all of Western Civilization? Compare that to Ham’s ghostly dad. He’s only in three scenes. But he now owns an island. For each performance in the last four hundred years or so, he has gotten minimum. Makes you think, don’t it.

If you follow these five simple rules,

you can have a successful career as a character. It worked for Moby Dick, for David Copperfield, for Emma, and it can work for you.

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9 thoughts on “Five Rules for Lead Characters To Live By

  1. First of all, thanks so much for writing an ‘advice column’ on writing that was funny and interesting. So I think I can now embark on a successful career as a character, now for a successful career as a writer…

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