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!

  1. Great post, as always! I think I have trouble giving my characters flaws, too… I'm quick to give my villains small redeeming factors, and I'll make my MC and secondaries insecure or limit their understanding of situations… but it's hard to make them actually consciously behave poorly. I guess it gets on my nerves for them to not do their very best to be upright. But, then again, I'm probably making their best too high. Anyone else have this kind of problem?

    Yes, writing from another characters POV can be so helpful! The other day I did that, from one of my favorite secondaries' POV. He's sitting in his room in the castle brooding about the climax/anticlimax which has just taken place, and how it all took him by surprise. The main character had ridden off into danger, instructing him not to get mixed up in it. But she isn't back yet, and I had intended to write about he decides to go looking for her. But then he started thinking about how everything was messed up… his hopes, his dreams, his whole view of the life. And I had a window straight into his soul, and learned a lot about him. Things which will define who he is and how he acts and what he says, even when I return to my main character’s POV.

    Anyway, I’m one of those who has been reading the blog posts and comments for a while now without commenting. I have enjoyed it a lot, and learned so much! Thank you, Gail, for /Writing Magic/ and for your blog! And greetings to everyone else, too! I’m a homeschooler also. ^_^

  2. Thank you so much for answering my question (you have no idea how excited I get when my questions show up on the blog!!!)! I know your advice will help – it always does:) I’ve been giving that story a rest for a while, but I think I’ll go back to it now and try to work in some of your suggestions. Very helpful, as always!

  3. I finally read "Two Princesses of Bamaare" and "Dave at Night" and really liked them, especially "Two Princess of Bamaare". (I'm probably spelling it wrong. Sorry!)

  4. Lady Leolani, I have that problem with characters too, only if they become too upright, it also annoys me… Either way, it seems, I'm annoyed with my characters. Either they're not doing their best which is annoying, or there much too perfect or uptight. Sigh, the problems of a writer…

  5. Thanks for answering my question about POVs! I think I've got it sorted out now. Also, I just read The Scorpio Races by… um… somebody, and it's got about the same thing going on. It's an awesome book, if you happen to like reading books about people racing killer horses.

  6. Hi Mrs. Levine!!! (I've noticed that I began every comment with that!) I think I've figured out part of my problem with finishing stories is that I'm a natural planner, I always know what I'm packing for a trip at least a month ahead, and I try to get everything planned out before I write anything. It's also why I've been able to write two short stories. But when I plan, I leave out very important things and focus on little, inimportant details, like my all my characters' favorit color. I can relate to your trouble with Elodie because I started writing a story, only to figure out that I had no idea who the bad guys where! I still have no idea who she was fighting, only that she was! Also, all of my stuff, other than the short stories, seams almost soap-opera-ish. I know that if I was reading them, not writing, I would care less about the characters! Can anyone help me with these problems? Thanks a TON!!!!!

  7. I found it really interesting that writeforfun mentioned already having quirks and flaws but still having flat characters…sometimes I think characters end up flat *because* we're trying too hard to make them quirky. It can end up contrived, and doesn't feel natural to the reader.

    I don't have a solution, just an observation!

  8. From the website:
    Hi, Ms. Levine, I was curious to see if you had any ideas on what to do when you don't know where to start when you begin writing. I have a great plot, and do-able characters–but I can't decide where I should start. Anybody have any ideas?

  9. Oh! Dear Mrs Gail! When you explain how to write, writing seems easy and like lot of fun! And that feeling doesn't leave me after I end my reading of your writing! Thanks! Now I'll fall into thinking what strangers ( like ogres and gnomes) would my acqaintances do! Hm! I'm really fond of using my imagination to guess what life would my mates lead if they were in a magical world! And I also imagine what their own world is like) But usually people try to hide the magic too deeply inside of them) Thank you, and I'll make so bold as to ask you again 'Does your agent have the ordinary-mail address only? I'd love to know his/her e-mail address,since I can't send an ordinary envelope-letter to America and sit waiting for a reply- it'd take AGES! And 'ELLA' is really sweet in Ukrainian) I'm doing her into it, the first chapter so far) I wonder how to get the rest of the book? It isn't sold in my country! But when there's a will, there always is a way, I've learned that already! Thank you very-very much! Anastasia Skripnik)

  10. wonderful post!
    Kelly- start anywhere. Sometimes it's hard to decide where to start so try a bunch of different places. You'll find the one that works and sounds best.

  11. I'm going to expound on what Gail was saying about writing from an elusive character's POV – when I couldn't figure out the personality and brain behind my MC, I just wrote his most prominent memories in his POV. It really helped, and it was a lot of fun.

  12. My characters are usually pretty developed… sometimes too much! It's funny, but sometimes when I write (I like writing each chapter from a different POV) I find that the MC, the one who I originally thought was good, really has evil intentions. So I sort of had to switch when my MC began behaving badly to her secondary characters. Bad girl!
    Kelly– open up one of your favorite books and take the first sentence. What grabs you? The opening line is one of the most important parts of a novel– it either pulls you in, or it doesn't. I like to mess around and see if I can come up with a great opening sentence (usually funny) and then go from there. Rick Riordan has some of the funniest first sentences I know! Another way to find a good place to start is to pick a scene (i.e. drop your reader in the midst of a battle, or the first day of middle school, or in a grocery store right before it gets robbed) and pick the most dramatic place in that scene (i.e. you're about to get stabbed by your mortal enemy, a bully stuck you in a locker, you ARE the robber) and write from there. Hope it helps! Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter has a good chapter on this too.
    Gail, do you know when the expected release date is for Beloved Elodie? I can't wait, because A Tale of Two Castles is my favorite of your novels!

  13. I had a problem with flat characters when I was working on my second draft of my screenplay. In my first draft, the characters were defined mostly by their abilities–one was an artist, one was an architect (and a joker), and one was a chess prodigy. So what I did for my second draft was stop and write a short story about each character and their life before they appear in the screenplay. In the screenplay these characters have all been torn from their homes, so I explored how they and their families dealt with the news that they were being taken away. Suddenly these characters were no longer "the goofball" or "the artist." Suddenly they had personalities, they had pains, they had people they were leaving behind. The guy that was at first the comic relief now used jokes to cover up the pain of losing his girlfriend. The girl who was an artist has a sketch of her grandmother tucked in the back of her sketchbook, drawn the day before she left. The chess prodigy is leaving behind a twin brother, an older sister, and a father who tried so hard to keep his family together. These stories will probably not be included in the screenplay, except maybe as exposition, but it helped me make the transition from seeing them as minor characters to seeing them as actual people with real problems and pains. Once I see them as people rather than characters, the start to leap off the page…or "pop," as writeforfun put it.

  14. Thank you for suggesting to take characters from other works and use their characteristics for my own characters. I am a die-hard Jane Austen fan, and I loved Mr. Darcy! Thinking that I could write a character like him, and so many other characters really turned on a light bulb for me. Thanks Mrs. Levine!

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