Great news! My forthcoming writing book, Writer to Writer, has a subtitle, and it comes from you wonderful blog writers, who galloped in with your excellent ideas when I appealed for help. The powers that be at HarperCollins loved (and I love it too) one of Eliza’s suggestions. The subtitle will be–imagine a drum roll–From Think to Ink. Thank you, everyone, and special thanks to Eliza!
Eliza, if you’d like the acknowledgment in the book to include your last name, please write to the guestbook on my website with that information. Your email address would also be helpful. I won’t display anything you send. Unlike the blog, I see comments on the website and approve them before they’re posted.
On December 4, 2013, Bug wrote, I am worried that all my characters are too similar, and I have tried adding quirks, but I still feel like they are still really really close to each other. Does anyone have any way to help? Maybe my quirks aren’t quirky enough…
An assessment of the traits we usually give our characters may help. We can make a list. For example, suppose our characters’ virtues tend to be friendliness, an easy-going nature, and a sense of humor. We put these on our list. Their flaws seem always to include difficulty trusting, sarcasm, and laziness. We list these too. As soon as we look at our list we see possibilities for variation.
We can make add other personality traits, like this: shyness, too much energy, seriousness, a trusting nature, quick anger, hesitancy, impulsiveness, nervousness, sweetness, optimism, pessimism. That’s eleven. Go for eleven more. Return to this list and add to it when you think of additions, and keep the list handy as you develop your characters.
Of course it’s not enough to have a list. We have to show the traits in action, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings. Suppose our MC Jenna is waiting at a bus stop along with three strangers. It’s winter; snow is falling lightly; the bus is late. One stranger is so wrapped up against the weather that Jenna can see only his or her amber-colored eyes. Let’s call him or her WU, for wrapped up. The other stranger, whose name will turn out to be Ivan, is approximately Jenna’s age (fifteen), and, like Jenna, he’s wearing just a light jacket over a hoodie sweatshirt, no gloves, and sneakers rather than boots. Ignoring the swathed person, he starts a conversation with her. What does he say?
We cast an eye over our list of characteristics. Since Ivan started the conversation, let’s imagine that he’s not shy. And let’s pick impulsive and too trusting from our list. What might such a person say to Jenna? We write three possible lines for him. If all of them look like the sort of dialogue we always write, we write three more. When we get something that feels unfamiliar, we give it to him. Once he speaks, we know him a little.
Now we have to decide what Jenna does or says. Again we go to our list, then write down possible responses. Since she’s our POV character, we can tell the reader what she’s thinking and feeling, too, so our possible response list may be longer.
It will help if we have an idea of the kind of story we’re writing, so we can stop now to decide. If this is going to be a romance, we’ll go in one direction, probably, and WU may even turn out to be one of Ivan’s parents. If we’re writing an adventure story, we may have the dialogue go another way, and the missing bus and WU may take on more significance. If we’re writing horror, we may start to suspect Ivan as well as WU. Science fiction or fantasy may lead us in another direction.
The roles our characters are going to play in our story will help us make each unique. Let’s take one of my favorite novels when I was little, the classic Bambi by Felix Salten as an example. We’ll probably be writing a more complex story than this one, but its simplicity helps to show what I mean, because the characters aren’t much more than their roles. If you read the book when you were much younger, or never read it at all, you can go to Wikipedia for a plot summary, as I just did to refresh my memory. If you go to Wikipedia, make sure the page you’re on is for the book and not the movie.
Let’s look at just a few of the characters:
Bambi is our MC, brave, intelligent, inexperienced but promising at the beginning, thoughtful.
His mother is motherly, solicitous, expert in the ways of raising a fawn.
Faline, the love interest, is alluring and charming.
The old Prince is solemn, wise.
Gobo is weak and gullible.
The tale spans the life of a deer in a forest where hunters hunt. Man is the main villain, but carnivores in general don’t come off very well. Gobo, for example, is the way he is so that a point can be made about the danger of trusting humans. There are other turns in the story, but his undoing affects everything that follows. When Salten wrote Gobo, he must have known the role he would play in his plot.
Of course, we want major characters with more depth than a couple of salient characteristics. If our character is weak and gullible, we need to ask ourselves, Weak how? Physically? Is he ill or out of shape or exhausted? Emotionally weak? Is he unable to resist the slightest temptation? Gullible how? What else can we give him? Maybe he’s physically weak and also embarrassed to ask for help. As a result he often gets along without. Maybe he’s gullible because he always believes the best of people.
So we differentiate our characters by first thinking about their parts in our story and then by dreaming up ways to complicate their personalities without derailing our plot.
We can also see if we can eliminate characters we don’t need. For instance, if I had been around when “Cinderella” was first concocted, I would have argued against two stepsisters. We don’t need two! In the fairy tale they’re indistinguishable. And why seven dwarfs? They clump together into a formless mass of short characters. At least Disney had the good sense to name each one after a distinguishing characteristic. I couldn’t remember all the names, so I looked them up in Wikipedia, where the dwarfs’ monikers in various “Snow White” productions are listed. Here’s the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_names_of_the_Seven_Dwarfs. The strange names they’re given from production to production are funny.
In our story, if we have a group of friends who all seem to be running together, we can practice character economy and drop a few.
But we may need them all. My novel The Wish is about popularity, and I had to have a bunch of teenagers. It was hard work to make each one stand out! In a mystery we need enough suspects to confuse the poor reader, and we must differentiate between them so the reader can follow the plot.
Here are four prompts:
• Write the romantic version of the Jenna and Ivan story.
• Write a version of the story in which WU is the villain. Ivan knows him or her and is terrified.
• Have the bus come. Inside are five passengers and the driver. Jenna, Ivan, and WU get on. Turns out WU has been waiting for this particular driver to come along. You make up the reason. Write the bus ride and make the driver, each of the passengers, WU, Jenna, and Ivan distinct. Give each a role to play in the plot.
• Rewrite “Cinderella,” changing the plot so that the second stepsister has a real part to play for good or for ill. You can bring the story to its usual conclusion or change it entirely.
Have fun, and save what you write!