On November 14, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …I’ve already read your extremely helpful section in Writing Magic about developing characters and I’ve filled out a character questionnaire for each of my characters, but they still seem sort of flat and Mary-Sue like, especially compared to the ones in my last book. I think part of my problem may be that they don’t have lots of quirks and faults, despite my efforts to think up some and apply them. Any ideas on how to make these characters pop?
Despite the troubles I’ve been having with Beloved Elodie, which I’ve written a little about here, a bright spot has been the secondary characters. The key has been getting inside their heads, and each head is different. Let’s take Mistress Sirka, for example. She’s a barber who’s secretly in love with Brunka Dror. Brunkas are people who pledge themselves to helping others and to never marrying and who drink a magic potion that sharpens all their senses. Sirka has done something extreme in pursuit of her love, and that’s the key to her: she’s impulsive, feels everything very strongly, takes risks, and doesn’t care what people think of her. She’s not one of the POV characters, so we get to know her through her dialogue and through Elodie, the POV character in the scenes Sirka is in. Whenever it’s time for Sirka to talk I mentally run through her qualities and decide what such a person would say. I think about what gestures she’d make. She has this amazing smile, the kind of smile you might wear when you’re merrily riding a roller coaster.
So that’s one approach. When you’re writing dialogue, consider who the speaker is. Keep his personality in mind. When would he chime in? When would he keep mum? If he’s silent, have your narrator notice and speculate why. Sometimes you may need your dialogue to carry exposition. Certain things must be said and it doesn’t matter who says them, so there may be patches where the speaker can be identified only by attribution, by Nadia said or Ondine said. But mostly your dialogue should reflect the nature of the speaker.
I haven’t given Sirka any speech mannerisms, but I have given them to other characters. Master Tuomo often ends his sentences with, “I tell you.” He makes pronouncements. He’s just a tad angry, and he’s sure he’s right on every subject. Master Albin, a theatrical personality, often speaks as if he were the narrator of the play of his life. So there’s another suggestion: dream up speech mannerisms for some of your characters, not all. All is too many. And don’t use them every time the character opens his mouth. Now and then is enough.
Most chapters in Beloved Elodie are from Elodie’s POV, but a big minority are in the voice either of the dragon Masteress Meenore or of the ogre Count Jonty Um. And when they’re from Jonty Um’s POV, well, he’s a shape-shifter, so when he’s shifted his chapter would be in the POV of whatever animal he is. Meenore, Jonty Um and his shape-shifts, and Elodie all have quite different voices. This question came up in the comments on last week’s post, about identifying the narrator of a chapter without having to refer to the chapter heading. I hope the reader will be able to figure out to whom the chapter belongs from the voice. I hope reading a single paragraph will reveal all, although I do identify the narrator under the chapter heading. Meenore uses the biggest words I can think of, and I rely a lot on my thesaurus when I write in ITs voice. Jonty Um uses short sentences and simple vocabulary with the expressions “Fee fi” or “Fo fum” sprinkled here and there. The thoughts of the animals are as simple as I can get. Elodie is the least distinctive voice, she’s the Everyman of the story. Each narrator focuses on what he or she or IT would most naturally notice.
Which leads to another suggestion, an early prompt: If a character is refusing to emerge, write a chapter from his POV. Afterwards, consider what you learned. What caught his eye, his ear, his nose? What was different from the way the chapter would have unfolded from your chosen POV character? Then write it again in the POV you’ve been using but incorporating the insights you’ve gained.
Here’s another early prompt to make characters “pop.” Think of a few of the most complicated people you know. Start a new story and put one of them in, under an assumed name, in a different body and changed circumstances, the circumstances of your story, but herself nonetheless. See if someone else you know can go in as well. These characters are likely to “pop.” Their complexity, which you know well, will influence their actions, decisions, speech.
Or you can mix and match, a quality from this person, a fault from that one, a virtue from another.
Or choose a fictional character you feel you know well. In my mind, although I never told my editor, the ogre Jonty Um in A Tale of Two Castles is sort of Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. He’s eleven feet tall and inarticulate, but he seems stern and haughty while he’s really kind and decent. The secret Darcy helped me get Jonty Um.
Think of how real people make an impression on us, through their clothing, their hair style, their mannerisms, the choices they make when they present themselves to the world. Many physical attributes are given to us – height, beauty or plainness, eye color, hair (curly, straight, thick, thin) – but we adapt them uniquely to ourselves. I took the train to New York City this morning. A woman sat next to me and went to sleep, but she didn’t relax into sleep, didn’t slump, didn’t lose her grip on her magazine. Her feet were planted neatly side by side. When I woke her because I had to get by her to exit, she didn’t jump. She segued smoothly from sleep to wakefulness. In fact she might be anything but, but my impression was of a gentle, conforming, pleasant, somewhat predictable person. Her clothing added to the impression. She was dressed for business, nothing flashy, muted colors, small earrings, low-heeled shoes. She was a miracle of ordinariness.
You’re writers. You probably already watch people. If you don’t already, take notes. If you’re among strangers, draw conclusions from the superficial (not a good character trait in life, but fine for fiction). If you’re with family, friends, or schoolmates, imagine what a stranger would make of them – and of you! Keep your discoveries in mind when you write.
There are prompts sprinkled in above, but here are a few more:
∙ Take my miracle of ordinariness and make something happen on the train that reveals her. It can be something big, like a terrorist attack, or little, like a loud cell phone talker. Is her mild persona camouflage and she’s really extraordinarily brave or angry? Or is she just as she appears?
∙ Keep going with the train event. Develop the other characters. A delay in public transportation is a catalyst for people to get to know each other and to rub against one another.
∙ So is a jury. If you’ve never been a juror, draw on movies and books. A bunch of strangers are thrown together to evaluate a situation and make ethical choices. Your courtroom drama can be contemporary or fantastic or historical, a murder trial or a trial about the treatment of unicorns. Write it.
Have fun, and save what you write!