Same old same old

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!

  1. Thanks for the advice, Mrs. Levine! I was having bad trouble with this, so it was really helpful. 🙂

    I had a quick question: I have trouble describing characters. I like to start in the middle of action, keeping the story moving, but then when I introduce a new character, it feels like I have to grind to a halt to describe them. Then, I think that I don't do it in a satisfactory way. How do I describe characters in a satisfactory way without stopping the action or making the reader feel like I'm trying too hard to let them know what they look like? I'm in Chapter 2 of my work in progress, and I still haven't revealed anything about my main character, besides his name and his thoughts. I've read books before where I got annoyed when the author describes characters, even insignificant ones, in excruciating detail, so I don't want to replicate that mistake and annoy any readers in turn. Do you have any suggestions?


  2. I have the same problem often, Horsey at Heart, especially with first-person narrators.
    I think it's natural, like Ms. Levine says, to notice some things about people the first time you meet them. The main character might see one of your new characters approaching and think something like: "Oh, she looks a little like my Great-Aunt Geraldine – her eyes are the same dark blue. But then Great-Aunt Geraldine never had hair that pretty brown color. . ." And so you have a character's appearance described nicely. You could likely describe how she walks, too, and what her clothes are like.
    On the other hand, if you're looking for a way to describe characters' backgrounds instead of what they look like, think of how they might talk to each other and reveal bits that way. For example, maybe they walk past a street musician, and one character groans, "That harp is so out of tune!" and then, when asked how he knows, mentions that his dad was a musician – which may set off someone else saying how her family always hated music. . .
    Sorry if this is too long. I hope it's helpful to someone.

  3. Your "it bears repeating" paragraph reminds me of this quote:

    "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." —Walter Wellesley Smith

    Most people I've met say they want to be a writer, or talk about writing a book someday. But the majority of them will never write anything, let alone a book, because it is hard work. The ink is your blood on the page.

    It's like giving birth. The idea grows slowly inside of you, and then it's painful and there's a lot of pushing, sweating, bleeding, and cursing before this little slimy babe is drawn out of you, whom you love more than you could have ever imagined, but who still needs two more decades of work and heartache before you can say he or she is finally able to function on its own apart from you.

    A book may not literally take 20 years from start to finish, though some do. But like a baby, you can't just wake up one day and say, "Oh, I think I'll be a parent/novelist. Oh look! Here's my finished product, all ready to go. Well, that was easy. What shall I do next?" It just doesn't work that way.

    You learn to be a better parent the longer you parent, and you learn to be a better writer the longer you write. You're never done. There are no check boxes to tick off. It's an ever-growing, ever-evolving process.

    And I love it.

  4. I hate, loathe, despise, abominate, and abhor grammatical errors. Note deleted comment above. ;D

    My problem is mainly getting to know a character, so I sympathize deeply with this post. 😉
    I've made lists where I tell myself things about them, but usually I forget them and write them entirely differently than I first intended. I TRY to cure this by writing first-person for a bit to get a feel for the character, and after I'm used to them I worry about peculiarities.

    Yay, my first comment! I've read this blog for a while, but I've never actually commented. I adore your books, Miss Levine! All my copies are dog-eared and I practically fought my siblings for ownership. 😉

  5. Hey, sorry to bug you about this on your blog, but I have a question for you. You will be signing at the King's English in SLC on June 29, and I'd love to do an interview with you beforehand if I could. I have a Young Adult fiction book review blog and I am a big fan of your work. I emailed your publicist, but received an email stating that they would be out of the office until June 29. Please let me know if you'd be interested in doing a short interview with me before your signing. Thanks!

    emilysreadingroom at

  6. Horsey at Heart–Rose made good suggestions, and I'm adding your question to my list.
    Alex–I'm glad you posted!
    Emily–I would be happy to be interviewed by you. I emailed my Disney publicist, and one of us will be in touch with you.

  7. Thanks so much for answering my question in this hugely helpful post! I'll try writing a description of myself and see what I can use for my character.
    For F, I think some minor characters need not stand out much or appear often. A messenger or servant with only a few speaking lines can still be interesting, but needn't be.

  8. A great post. Characters are so important – if a character has to be real to the reader for them to enjoy the book. I can always learn more about developing characters!

  9. @ April. Amen, writing is a lot of work but it is also so rewarding; maybe that's why there are a few brave souls in the world that are crazy enough to try it…
    @ Ms. Levine, thank you this helped me a lot. You seem to be able to read my mind because this was just what I've been struggling with. I've been trying to make my characters more diverse in a rewrite I'm doing and I'll definately put what was said here into consideration.
    Thanks again!

  10. Hi Ms. Levine,
    Someone told me to only use the word "said" as a dialogue tag, and not to add other words like Shouted, whispered, yelled. But that would make everything sound flat. Do you have any way of getting around this?

  11. Ms. Levine did say in Writing Magic that it is usually best to keep to "said" because it disappears, or the reader forgets about it, while other words jump out when they're used. An example would be a passage in a Bookworm Adventures book (I think this series can only be found here in Singapore) in which the words argued, informed, wondered, and grunted are used all on one page. They just look weird and out of place. I think you should use words such as shouted, whispered, etc. but only when the situation clearly requires them and they don't look and sound strange when someone reads the passage.

  12. Wow. This post came exactly at the right time – thank you, Ms. Levine!! It helped a lot, especially that example of an aunt's friend, haha. 🙂 I could see so much of her, from such few lines (even though the description was varying)

    @maybeawriter – thanks for the advice. 🙂

    @Ezmirelda: I agree with what Lei quoted and Ms. Levine said. Ever since I read that, I've noticed that 'said' really does blend in. However, using the other words too frequently draws attention. Another tid-bit I picked up was that don't use words to describe an action that cannot be physically done. Like, using

    "Lotsa dialogue here," he laughed.

    I haven't stopped using words like that personally, but I read somewhere that you can't actually laugh a sentence. :/ I'm a bit confused this though, since it's so widely-used. But it really makes sense.

  13. F – I realize everyone has different opinions on this, but I've never seen any problems with:

    "That was some idea," he laughed

    – and such things like that. It may not be literally correct, but it shows the reader what to think.
    Of course, there's always:

    "What a plan!" He laughed.

    – as two different sentences.

    Hope this is helpful to someone.

  14. @F and @Rose

    Have you ever tried to talk while laughing? Impossible. Sometimes you can get words—or parts of words—between the guffaws, but you cannot actually speak while laughing.

    Hence: "That was some idea." He laughed. …works/is correct, but: "That was some idea," he laughed. …is not correct.

    The only audible action I can think of that can happen while speaking, is burping. You can belch the ABCs, for example. But that isn't used very much in literature, for some reason. 😉

  15. Ezmirelda–I'm with everyone who objects to anything but speech verbs for speech. I posted about this very topic on December 16, 2009.
    April–I didn't know one can burp speech! Great information!

  16. I like your post, Ms. Levine. You're full of great ideas!
    In other things I have a question again. Does anyone have any opinions on whether it's better to write your novel out first or to let it go straight to the computer. I wrote my first one out, and I liked doing it like that. But sometimes it seem like my words come out faster on the computer. I like both ways and don't know what I should for my next story. Thanks!

  17. I have been writing a story about my great-great grandma based off stories told by my grandma. She was very interesting and I was writing about how she came to America by herself at 13. She was a Russian Jew and so she spoke Yiddish. I wanted to make the readers feel more personal and maybe get more into it by adding a few Yiddish words here and there. I know I have read books like this and can make out usually what they mean using the context clues for instance in my story I have:
    "Goodbye Laura. Zol zayn mit mazel!"
    I smiled. "Good luck to you too!"
    But what exactly is going overboard? I had an idea for her to call her father tate, call her mother mamele(especially since she used to call my grandma little mamele) and tell someone to shat!(hush!) and maybe some other words but would this all be going overboard? Would my reader be annoyed from actually having to think really hard and not just relax and barely pay attention? (which I have done with certain books that were way too confusing for absolutely no reason)
    I want to honor my great great grandma and make my grandma proud when she reads it so I want it to be really good. I might end up with a lot of questions.

  18. Elizabeth- sometimes I will write certain scenes out and rewrite it slightly differently on the computer. I think it is whatever feels comfortable at the moment just remember what you named your document and try to keep what you write out together and you can ust go with what feels right. Personally I prefer writing it out when I am still confused about what I want to write and type when the idea is fully formed and developed in my mind. But thats just me. 🙂

  19. Jill – sounds like a great idea and a neat way to honor your great-great-grandmother. Just wanted to say that.
    When I read historical fic and such, I like having little bits of language stuck in – it makes it seem more real. Of course, there could be too much, as in writing whole pages in it. 🙂 but the phrases and words are good, especially if you can "translate" them like you mentioned.
    Again, I love that story idea.

  20. Elizabeth–I agree with Jill that it's best to do whatever makes you feel most comfortable, computer or longhand.
    Jill–Your examples don't seem too difficult and they lend flavor. I used a little Yiddish in my book DAVE AT NIGHT, and I think it works.

  21. Jill – I agree with everyone else that the Yiddish you proposed including sounds just right. 🙂

    I also remember hearing a tip that instead of trying to do accents in writing, you can show how people of different backgrounds (and native languages) structure their sentences differently. (And, incidentally, it was mentioned as a way to develop characters.)

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