Don’t Stalk Your Characters

The Argyle Sweater

Let’s ensure that our major characters live out their own lives while we observe, read their minds, and record.

However … we must not:

  • follow their every single move;
  • look in the mirror with them;
  • go to the toilet with them (unless it’s to see something unfortunate like blood in the urine or crabs in the pubic hair);
  • go shopping with them — unless it’s to purchase a gun, rat poison, the wrong flowers (or flowers on the wrong day). Not even Scrooge bought his own Christmas goose, he sent a minor character off screen to do it (and this added to character because he tipped the kid to do it).

Include only those activities that advance the plot and/or show motivation or character.

During my editing years, I often came across sections in manuscripts in which the authors couldn’t seem to let their character go. (This usually happened at the end of chapters.)

In several ways, this delighted me. It meant that my constant harping about getting inside characters’ heads, about transplanting their heads into our own, was paying off. The authors were falling in love with their characters. Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

Problems with including every action of a character:

  1. when the action slows down that much, it leads the reader to expect something important is coming up;
  2. it’s fluff and we know it and when a reader realizes this as well, it turns them off;
  3. since it usually happens at the end of a chapter/section, it blocks the opportunity (the required opportunity) to force the reader to turn the page; and
  4. it almost always leads us away from the character’s journey into our own journey which can be confusing to the reader: “I thought Suzie liked the smell of Parmesan cheese.” And/or it may tempt us to throw in the dreaded Author Intrusion.


Marcie left the office and took the elevator down to the parking garage. She went to her car and started it. She left the garage and drove down Main Street and turned off at Bentley Avenue which was her street. At her house, she drove into the driveway, got out, locked the car and unlocked her front door and went in. She put her coat and things in the closet then went to the kitchen.

In the kitchen, she took out a pot and put it on the stove. From the cupboard, she took out a can of soup and with the can opener from the second drawer, she opened it and then put it into the pot. She turned on the stove.

After the soup was heated, she ate it from the pot with a spoon and then rinsed the pot in the sink and went to bed and fell asleep.

And, and, and? Then what happened? Was there a prowler? Did somebody break into her house? Did somebody put arsenic in the can of soup somehow? Is she going to start throwing up? What’s going to happen to Marcie?

Uh … nothing. That’s just what she did after work. Every day after work except sometimes she heated a microwave meal … Every day. Day after day. The same thing that our readers do every day, too.

Let’s not do this to our readers. Readers pick up books to escape from the mundane.

How about this?

Marcie was still steaming mad when she got home from work. There was no way Roger was going to get away with cheating on her. Not with that tart.

She threw her coat onto the chair at the front door and headed for the kitchen. He’d be home soon and she wanted to welcome him with an early supper. A special surprise.

She reached into the second drawer, took out the can opener. From the cupboard she took out Roger’s favourite soup, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle. Into a pot it went. Onto the stove it went.

From under the sink, way at the back, she took out the box of rat poison. END OF CHAPTER

Otherwise, we don’t need to know step-by-step details about our characters’ actions.

Patricia K McCarthy Does it Well

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Patricia K. McCarthy is Ottawa’s fang-queen, replete with sordid tales of horny vampires consorting with horny victims. Part blood bath and part bubble bath, her writing teases readers to make it to the end of each chapter alive. McCarthy was riding the vampire wave before there was one, which accounts for her biting flirtation with the dark art of satire. Read her Crimson vampire series and you may never feel the same again as you walk the streets of Ottawa when the sun goes down.” — Brant Scott, Capital Ideas Communication

In Patricia K McCarthy’s Crimson Series, dear old Granny spends quite a lot of time in the kitchen where other characters often congregate. Granny doesn’t always cook — most of the time she is doling out rum — but when she does cook, it’s with lots and lots of background chatter that advances the plot. Always.

When we’re in the kitchen with Patricia K McCarthy’s Crimson Series characters, we know there is going to be a detailed change of plans.

When we’re in the bedroom with her characters, the details are intimate.

When Magdalene is hungry, the details are delicious.

Although mentioned often, Granny’s tomato soup cake recipe is not spelled out in the story itself. Ms. McCarthy provides the recipe at the end of Book 6, The Crimson Dream (a vampire escape), as a bonus for readers. Brilliant way of sharing a recipe with readers.

Another way of handling a routine chore is to use it as comedy relief or perhaps solve a problem or take care of a minor/major marital dispute while simultaneously vacuuming or cooking (i.e., showing a character’s skill set as suggested in a previous post to make the reader “love” him/her).

No matter what Marcie did with her mother-in-law’s apple pie recipe, it never came up to snuff according to her husband. She would change the type of apple she used, she would adjust the balance between white and brown sugar, she would adjust the amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Nothing worked. It was never the same as “Mom’s” according to Roger.

One day, Marcie got stuck talking to the neighbour out in the back yard while that week’s apple pie was in the oven. It burned.

You know what? she thought. I’m going to serve it to the son-of-a-bitch anyway. I’m sick and tired of his Mom-does-everything-better routine.

That evening at supper she placed a piece of apple pie, edges blackened, crust dark brown, sugar hardened to amber, in front of Roger. As she turned to put the knife into the sink, she couldn’t believe her ears:

“You finally got it right, honey. It’s perfect.”


Next post — Recycling Characters

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):

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