Evergreen Characters: Populating a Series With Characters Who Never Get Old
Pippi Longstocking. Katniss Everdeen. Meg Murry. Taran, the Assistant Pig Keeper. Despereaux. Ed Kennedy.[/size]
These characters live in our hearts and minds, and will never grow old. They are like old friends whom, when we cross their paths again, we’ll pick up right where we left off and have a nice chat. These aren’t characters, we insist. They are too real to be something created.
3 Traits of Evergreen Characters
How do you create evergreen characters, ones who live on after the pages of a book are closed?
In our examples, each character is unique. The authors aren’t writing about a generic “Male” or “Female.” Instead, each character is unique and can’t possibly be confused with any other character. It’s a paradox: to be universal, you must be specific. In the opening lines of
Book of Three, Taran is presented as a poor excuse for a blacksmith’s assistant. Lloyd Alexander takes care to draw us a picture of a specific blacksmith assistant, not some generic assistant:
Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran’s arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.
“Why?” Taran cried. “Why must it be horseshoes? As if we had any horses!”
Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink. “Lucky for the horses,” was all he said, glancing at Taran’s handiwork.
Do I like it that some of my favorite characters are liars, cheats, and thieves? Absolutely not. And yet, I don’t hold it against them. Somehow, in the midst of deep character flaws, I like Despereaux. He may be ugly and socially inept, but he’s honorable. Characters need to be empathetic, to have something that gives readers something to cheer for.
In the above quote, I like Taran after just one sentence, because he aspires to more. He wants to make beautiful, strong, useful swords. His hopes and dreams pull me closer and make me want to like him.
3. Larger Than Life
Characters who live in our dreams are
bigger than life. What is it you wish you could say, but polite society holds you back from uttering? Characters we love say it. They do the unthinkable. It’s not just impulse we love, as in the example below, but rather the audacity of characters who think they should attempt such deeds.
“I could do better at making a sword,” Taran protested. “I know I could.” And before Coll could answer, he snatched the tongs, flung a strip of red-hot iron to the anvil, and began hammering away as fast as he could.
“Wait, wait!” cried Coll, “That is not the way to go after it!”
Heedless of Coll, unable to even hear him above the din, Taran pounded harder than ever. Sparks sprayed the air. But the more he pounded, the more the metal twisted and buckled, until, finally, the iron sprang from the tongs and fell to the ground. Taran stared in dismay. With the tongs, he picked up the bent iron and examined it.
“Not quite the blade for a hero,” Coll remarked.
“It’s ruined,” Taran glumly agreed. “It looks like a sick snake,” he added ruefully.
Poor Taran. He’s really, really bad at blacksmithing. And yet, I still like him. He had a dream and he went after that dream. He tried. And on the next page, the scene continues with Coll teaching Taran swordplay by using fire pokers; even though it’s fire pokers, he’s getting a taste of his dream.
Why do we return to a story or a series of stories? We return to meet up with old friends like Taran, who remind us of ourselves. Our better selves. Or perhaps, the selves we might yet be.
How to Create Evergreen Characters
Look at your character and
get more specific. If Burmka (a character I just made up) owns a dog, that’s weak. Instead, he should own a pure-white albino wolfhound who is always at his side. (Already, I like Burmka better!) Specific details help you create stronger stories, because they raise questions:Are albino wolfhounds rare? Very. Where did Burmka get this one? His grandfather, the former Baron of Valeria, brought him the pup for his fourth birthday.
Simply by giving the character a specific dog, we open doors to important backstory about his family. I could continue awhile and find out more about Valeria and especially why the grandfather is a “former” baron, and what that means today for poor Burmka. Why did Burmka get the albino dog for his fourth birthday and not the one before or after? Letting specifics shape the story will lead to a more interesting plot and story arc.
Balance Flaws and Strengths
Taran is an unskilled blacksmith, disobedient, impatient, and rather naïve about life. All of that, though, is redeemed because he hopes and dreams of more.
When you create characters, don’t shy away from character flaws. Jealousy, anger, cowardice, deception. Give your character one huge flaw, at minimum. But then, balance the flaw with a redeeming quality. If you err in balancing, let it be on the side of the flaws.
Katniss Everdeen is impulsive, skeptical, and peace-loving. But in the reader’s eyes, she can do no wrong because she volunteered to take her sister’s place in the cruel Hunger Games. She defies cruelty and misjustice, and
that very defiance wins our empathy.
Come Up With Unthinkable Things
The nice thing about writing a story is that we can go back and revise. Next time you revise a scene, push your characters to say and do outrageous things.
For a mouse to declare undying love for a human princess is outrageous. What if Despereaux never told the princess he loved her? The story falls apart. It only works because Despereaux, that small mouse, is larger than life.
Look for places where you wish you had delivered a killer line. Revise that line until it shocks—and delights—the reader. Search your story for places where a character’s action can escalate emotions to new heights. Then ask your character to go a step beyond that.
Bigger than life means saying and doing the unthinkable. But you, the author, must conceive that possibility. Often, I use lists to reach for the unthinkable. The first ten ideas I write down are clichés. The next ten ideas are so outlandish they make no sense. Then I get down to business, concentrating on manipulating variables until I find the perfect unthinkable thing. And I let my character think it.
Do you want your character’s name to be a household name? Like the Wimpy Kid? Well, maybe not that name, but Wimpy speaks to the hearts of his audience and says, “I’ve been there and I’ve survived.” And they laugh at him and with him. Bigger than life. That’s the characters we want to write.