Your story would be weighed down with weak characters. It otherwise might have a great plot hook or the most compelling conflict ever, but if your characters are weak, then why read the story?
Readers get into a story for one or more of several reasons: knowledge of a time period a story is set in, the technical details of something they’re familiar with that exists in the story, a desire to escape into something in the story that they find interesting (which I’ve done many times,) or identifying with characters.
For instance – let’s say that you’re writing a police book. You’ve spent a lot of time writing it while the theme music pieces from every procedural you’ve ever watched plays in your mind, and the Big Bad has the city in terror from whatever nefarious crime spree is going on. The police officer, or sergeant or whatever, has found the Big Clue that will let them stop the Big Bad in his or her tracks and keep the city safe – for now.
Let’s look at an example.
The phone rang.
Detective Rountree grimaced at the terrible coffee. He put it down and picked up the phone. A few grunts later, the phone dropped back down into the cradle and he stood up.
“Steph, we got something!”
Detective Loenen nodded, and put down her mug. She stood up and shrugged into her suit jacket.
“Ready when you are.”
I’m using a couple of my characters from a piece of mine, but here they’re pretty one-dimensional. They don’t do much, and to be honest, any character pair could do this sliver of a scene. Abbott and Costello, Kirk and Spock, Ren and Stimpy, Pinky and the Brain, The Doctor and his Companion, Holmes and Watson – you get the idea. The scene would change if you took any pair from that list and plug them in.
Since we aren’t talking about fanfiction, but original fiction, let’s go back to Detectives Rountree and Loenen.
The phone rang.
Detective Rountree glared at the offending instrument. He’d been up all night working this case and had only gotten a few hours sleep at home. The coffee urn had been drained once already by the daywatch crew, and the lack of sleep and caffeine jitters had everyone on edge. To make matters worse, Rountree was off his normal high-intensity exercise routine and his body was letting him know about it. He grimaced at the terrible coffee, but drained it anyway. The detective put his empty mug down and picked up the phone. A few grunts later, the phone dropped back down into the cradle and he stood up.
“Steph, we got something!”
Detective Loenen nodded, and put down her mug slowly. She was usually bursting with energy, something the others put down to fact that she drank those strange combination juice drinks instead of awful coffee and could almost outrun a police dog. She stood up listlessly, and shrugged into her suit jacket. Suspicious, Rountree glanced in her mug to see an iced coffee drink.
“Steph, I’m shocked.”
“Oh, shut up, Alex. The place I usually get my drinks is closed down because of this crime wave. I stopped at the cop shop for this.”
“You mean that all it took for you to stop making me to try all those strange concoctions was a guy with a bunch of criminal thoughts? Did you pick up any donuts for me too, while you was there?”
“You don’t eat donuts.”
“If you’re going to drink coffee, I’ll eat some donuts. In fact, in honor of this new Steph, I might even have a bear claw, too.”
She shot him a fulminating glance that promised him several months of taste-testing the most awful mixes she could find. His exhausted posture didn’t prevent a grin from breaking through, although he knew he was going to pay for those cracks later. He checked to make sure his S&W M&P .40 was secure in its holster.
“Ready when you are.” He looked for keys to the cruiser. “Wait a moment.” He went back to his desk and opened the drawer to look for them.
She held up the keys and smiled sweetly. “Looking for these? I guess this means I’m driving.”
His face fell.
She was already halfway out the door and he resigned himself to a wild ride. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut.
Hmmm… It seems that Detective Rountree, while trying to be funny, just dug a hole. It looks like a deep one, too. Granted, the crime wave keeping all the cops working doubles might have a little bit to do with why everyone’s tired, but it looks like Detective Loenen is just a little tired of the teasing about her preferred working drinks. I think she’s going to make her point, too.
So, the first example is something that your reader would just skip over quickly, waiting for the story to progress to the end. However, the second example would fill in some of the empty bits and let the characters carry the story more. Besides, a good motivation for Detective Loenen to resolve this case is to see her favorite store open back up, right? She’s got a bunch of retribution to exact for a certain partner’s wisecrack.
Another thing. Make your characters more human. (Leaving aside the various aliens, androids, and other lifeforms. Those can be played with later.) No one is perfect, and neither should your characters be. Have a cop that exercises and keeps himself in shape, but likes to eat maybe too many sweets and start to develop diabetes. Or have an acclaimed teacher that’s burned out and getting hard to deal with. Or a wrestler that is just a plain jerk to everybody, but goes home at night and secretly sets up half his paychecks to donate to the local children’s hospital for toys and medical treatment.
A lot of these things, if you can get a good lock on them in your head, you can see what they would do if they were living, breathing people. Yes, to you as their creator, they are living, but within the confines of the page they will only do what the reader sees them do.
Along with making your characters realistic, give them realistic abilities. Detective Alex Rountree is not Alex Murphy and doesn’t carry a BFG in his leg. He’s a good cop that right now is strung out from lack of sleep and a stubborn desire to catch the bad guys. He might give his partner a little bit too much of a hard time teasing about her food and drink choices – and pay for it later – but he’s basically a good guy. He’s believable within the bounds of his story.
Now, if he was a cop that worked the interstellar beat, inside of in the city, he’d have other limitations. I don’t think Detective Loenen would put up with the cracks any more than she does now, though.
Or, remember Han Solo? Yeah, him. The rogue with the Millenium Falcon and the hairy co-pilot. The one that shot first.
I could see his basic character trying to avoid Detectives Rountree and Lownen. I couldn’t see him as a superspy. Or, a restaurant owner. Or, a shrimp fisherman. Or, a high-school student. My point being, Han Solo wouldn’t fit in any of those types of stories or roles.
That is an extreme example, but imagine Chewie as that restaurant owner. Would you argue the bill?
So, yes, your characters are important. Make them realistic, and let them work within the bounds of their story’s framework. You’ll find that a lot of times, the story comes easier.