The Bus Test: A Simple and Merciless Method for Improving Characters
By Mike Cluff
Do me a favor and read this first paragraph from a story:
Alley sat on a park bench. She sat there eating a taco. She hated tacos. Just like she hated Jim. But she couldn’t resist either one. They were both so beefy and greasy. Alley had to call Becky and tell her how much she was looking forward to going shopping. She needed a new pair of skinny jeans. Alley started texting instead. She stood up, and as she crossed the street a bus rounded the corner and flattened her. End.
I imagine you’re wondering a few things. How is that a first paragraph? How is that even a story? Where the heck did that bus come from? or maybe Did Alley need new jeans because of the tacos? And would they really be all that skinny?
Sorry. The answers for those questions are just as relevant as the questions they belong to. They aren’t.
This is the question that matters: Do we really care that this character, the main character, was hit by a bus? And the answer is an obvious and resounding NO.
Alley did not pass the “Bus Test.”
While very simple, and possibly childish, the Bus Test is extremely effective in measuring the strength of your character and, consequently, your story. Here is the simple three-step breakdown of how to apply the Bus Test and measure its results:
- Take a character at any point of a story.
- Have a bus run over the character.
- Ask yourself that important question: Do I care that a bus just hit this character?
Just that simple. Let’s run over that again with a little more detail.
Take a character at any point of a story.
And I do mean any point. The first or last paragraph, it doesn’t matter — saying it is too early or too late in the story for the Bus Test is a lie. Yeah, writers are liars, but good writers tell lies we care about.
This test is not only applicable to main characters. Make your minor characters stronger by running them over too. And don’t forget the bad guys — nobody wants a weak villain, so run them over as well. Relish in the vehicular assault.
So step one, pick your character that will be put to the test at any point of the story. Then move on.
Have a bus run over the character.
Don’t get hung up on what kind of a bus. Just make it a generic yellow school bus. Don’t make it a space bus if you are writing a space opera, don’t make it an orcish scream-rock band tour bus for your urban fantasy, and definitely don’t make it a Winnebago for your retired-but-not-really-retired-detective mystery. If the story is written in a time, place, or even a world where buses don’t exist, that is even more of a reason to use a bus. You want the bus-meets-character situation to be abrupt and even absurd. Something that should be out of place.
But make sure that you actually type it out in the body of the story. Write “and a bus rounded the corner and flattened her/him/it/them.” Then read it out loud. Make it a group activity with your writing group or with your alpha readers. Laugh or cry. Then get the results.
Ask yourself that important question: Do I care that a bus just hit this character?
What I mean is, do you wish that this character was still around? Did you want to see and hear more from them? If you say yes, then the character passes the Bus Test. Simple. No matter if you loved or hated the character. If you or your fellow testers feel that the character’s untimely death was indeed untimely and left you wanting, congratulations, you have succeeded in creating a character worth caring about. A character that people want to keep caring about.
However, if, as in the case of Alley, the answer is no, then that character failed the Bus Test. And you have some work to do.
As an author you make promises to your readers. Promise that must be fulfilled. There are few things that piss me off more than when a character I have spent time with fails to meet their potential, be it fortuitous or tragic, and then fizzles out. Such cases only tell me two things: The author gave up on the character, and the author didn’t care enough about me, the reader, to follow through. You might think that I take it all personally, and you would be absolutely right.
Don’t cop out on your characters. Don’t waste your readers’ time.
It is your responsibility, your authorial duty, to make the reader feel something about your character or characters. Each character must have some relevance, not just to the story, but to the reader. But how? Alan Heathcock, author of Volt: Stories, said it this way:
“The only true way to make someone care about your character is by allowing them to become your character. Not to just look at the character. Not to glimpse them. Not even to just understand them. Full and deep care will only be won if your story enables a full empathetic connection, enabling the reader to live, in full — to see, hear, smell, feel, think, imagine, hurt and swoon and hope and hate — moment by moment, as the character.”
You build the bridge, that “full empathetic connection” between your characters and your readers. Every sense, feeling, and experience your character has must be relevant and honest. You can’t skimp on this at any point or you will lose your readers and your character will fail the Bus Test. But when you put in the effort and create a well rounded, flawed, three-dimensional character that is mercilessly exposed on every page you will ensnare and even possess your readers.
So even if you are done with all of your edits, all of your grammar is perfect, and all of your plot lines are full of twists and wonderful ups and downs, make sure to throw your characters under a bus and see if they pass the Bus Test.
Mike Cluff is the Editor-in-Chief and Chief Annoyance Officer (which are two ways of saying the same thing, but who doesn’t love redundant titles?) of Fiction Vortex. He has spent years in the writing and editing trenches, and he has earned every last red-ink stain on his uniform. Now he sits at a financial institution and can feel his creative soul slipping away.
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