These questions arose after my post of March 31, 2010 about creating layered characters.
Silver the Wanderer wrote, I think my problem is that my characters’ personalities seem too similar. I have a hard time making them seem distinct…
And Jen wrote, My problem is I have too many characters wandering about in my world, and I have difficulty in making them have different characteristics. I don’t know who I should remove from the story!
I realize this is like two questions. How to determine who stays in the story, and how to make them all unique?
I may need to bring in some of the lesser characters into my second book, but it’s frustrating now deciding which people contribute now and which should later…
And maybeawriter wrote, Right now, I’m having the same problem with my main character. I want her to be like me, so she can react to things the way I would, but she is very flat so far. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to see interesting characteristics in myself. Maybe I should make up new, different characteristics for her? Or magnify my own?
And F wrote, I just realized that I have a tendency to introduce characters as I need them, and then, when the scene is over, you don’t hear from them again. And I’m pretty sure that is NOT good. The problem is, I also need those characters. Have you ever had a problem like this? How do you step over it?
I’m putting the prompt at the beginning today. Try this: Write a description of five people you feel close to. Start with what you think of first when you think of each of them. Go on to looks, speech, gestures, what you like best, what you like least. You can use the character questionnaire in Writing Magic to help you fill the people out.
Maybeawriter, write a description of yourself along with the others. What do you consider your most salient (nice word!) characteristic? Ask a friend what struck her about you when the two of you met for the first time.
Now write a description of the oddest person you know. If you know more than one odd person, describe three of them.
When you’re finished, compare. I suspect each description is unique. What distinguishes one from another? Can you use some of these qualities in your characters? You can dismember the people you know for your fiction, put Charles’s walk with Myra’s habit of pinching the bridge of her nose and William’s annoying way of not listening to anything he doesn’t want to hear and give all three to a character who isn’t leaping out of the page.
In Ella Enchanted, my model for the hypocrisy in stepsister Hattie was one of my aunts (who had died by then). A brilliant friend and my mother were the sources of Princess Sonora’s intelligence in Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep. The character of Dave in Dave at Night was based on my father. In fact, the whole book is a kind of homage to him.
How would the people you described react to the events in your story? You can even ask them in real life. But if the question is, What would you do if an intelligent unicorn offered to grind up her horn so that you could see into the future? you may have to translate the question into something just a little more humdrum, like, if you could see into the future, would you peek? Or, what would you want to learn?
I’ve written on the blog about looking at portraits and photographs to help you describe people and looking at houses and landscapes to describe these things. Reality infuses our ideas with complexity. When we think of people’s speech, we may think of loud and soft, deep pitch or high. But when we listen, we notice that one person’s voice is breathy, another swallows often, a third spaces each word so she sounds a tad robotic.
We form strong initial impressions when we meet someone, whether that person is actually a person or a character. Most of the work in establishing a personality on the page comes at the beginning. If you concentrate on (in initial writing or in revision) presenting a character vividly, the reader’s impression will be fixed, especially if you’re consistent – keep the character behaving according to your set-up and drop in occasional reminders.
Think about the elements of first impression. You are meeting your aunt’s friend for the first time. What do you notice? Her appearance. The frown lines, the smile lines, the hair that’s been dyed too many times or left to go gray or the blue streak in the front and the rest is gray. The way she rocks back on her heels or lowers herself painfully into a chair. What she wears. Pearls with jeans or a dress down to her ankles and a silk shawl or a pleated skirt and a stained sweatshirt and high-top sneakers. What she says. Tells you how glad she is to meet you and then ignores you for the next half hour. Says how pretty you are and how pretty your friend is and how pretty young people are. Just smiles and says hi.
These are what we have to work with: appearance, voice, speech, smell, actions and reactions, habits, and maybe more that I’m not thinking of this minute. Have you made your characters different from one another in these regards? Can you go back and do so? Go into each of your scenes and see how you can make your characters stand out. Don’t go overboard. You don’t have to make Marco smell like a garbage dump or give Elaine a voice like a police siren. Little particularities will do.
And not everyone needs a lot of attention. A minor character can get just one characteristic. We don’t want to overload the reader.
When it comes to your main character, her thoughts will also distinguish her, which I wrote about on March 31st. Maybeawriter, if the point-of-view character is a lot like you and seems ordinary, that may not be bad. I’ve felt exactly the same way about many of my first-person characters. We often – not always – want the character who is telling the story to be sympathetic and understandable. I think your impulse to have her react as you would is a good one. When she reacts, she is likely to be believed by the reader.
Jen and F, I’m also having trouble figuring out which characters I need in the book I’m writing now. I may have to write the whole thing to know, and you may too. Some characters are obvious. Of course we need them, they’re central to the plot. But others?
I wouldn’t cut anybody until I was sure. I often find unexpected uses for characters and subplots. Writing, I believe and fervently hope, tends to self-correct. When you’re finished, if you have characters who disappear for fifty pages and then reappear after the reader has forgotten who they are, you can either go back and annihilate them or find ways to remind the reader of their existence now and then.
Jen, I see no problem in introducing new characters in a second book, although I’m not sure if this answers your question.
F, I find that it’s okay to use characters in a single scene or in only a few scenes if they’re limited to a certain place. In Fairest for example, the library keeper comes into the story only when heroine Aza is in the library. He also makes a brief, inconsequential appearance at the end. In Ella Enchanted, the forest elves stay in their forest. Restricting to time works too. A character’s grandfather who lives three states away can appear only in flashbacks. If the reader isn’t challenged to remember the character later, this works.
Have I said this before? It bears repeating, and I may say it again. In the blog I suggest approaches, and they sound simple or at least doable. Then you return to your story and my completely clear suggestions dissolve into mush. This is not your fault or mine. Writing is awfully hard. We try to light the way for one another. If anyone would like to weigh in on this subject, please do.
A few people who’ve been reading the blog came to last night’s signing, and that was great. Looking forward to meeting more of you!