Before the post–drum roll! A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, is out! Hope you read it and enjoy it! If you haven’t already, I did a virtual launch on Facebook on May 14th following my usual daily reading. In it, I talk about the book and my research and take questions. You can see and hear it here: https://www.facebook.com/GailCarsonLevine/videos/3570405463045222/ If you’d like a bookplate-signed book, you can buy one at Byrd’s Books: https://byrdsbooks.indielite.org/.
Onto the post. On December 9, 2019, Superb♥Girl wrote, I feel like my two main characters are too similar, and I want them to be foils to each other. Y’all have any advice for creating opposites?
Several of you responded:
Erica: In some ways, similarities in personality can create more interesting situations than different personalities. That being said, change the less prominent character more than the more prominent character, and change only one thing at a time. That way, you can assess each change individually.
Melissa Mead: Show a point where they were both in a difficult situation, and made very different choices.
Blue Rive: I don’t know about creating foils–I’d like to learn how to do that better as well–but for making characters different, consider giving them defining quirks. For example, I have one character who’s very rational and thinks through everything she does logically, and then her friend wants to be a storyteller and thinks about things emotionally, plus has a very lyrical way of speaking and thinking.
For foils–I lied: I do have advice–make their personalities very different (though they don’t have to be opposite) but their actions (Catra and Glimmer from She-Ra) or backstories (Mura and Rat from The Nameless City) very similar.
These are great!
I’d never thought of Erica’s suggestion, to change the less prominent character more significantly than the most important one, and I like it, because it should make the revision easier and may lead to fewer plot adjustments.
The discussion about personality and action makes me think of my parents, who died over thirty years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve told this anecdote here a long time ago. They were a love match. They squabbled sometimes, but my sister and I always knew that they loved each other–theirs was a romance that kept going.
Personality-wise, they were very different. My father showed three emotional states: joy, anger, and quiet (when something troubled him). Joy predominated, luckily for my sister and me. He didn’t reveal his inner life to anyone but my mother. She, on the other hand, presented emotional complexity–worried about everything, sometimes went into rages, had a bitter sense of humor, was afraid to show that she was happy (though we knew she was, fundamentally). Of course I loved them both, but she, prickly as she was, was easier to get close to.
When I was grown up and married, my husband David wanted to change jobs. After an interview, he brought home copies of the personality test he’d been given, which was pages and pages long. It may have been Myers-Briggs, which has come up several times here. I took the test at home. I don’t remember the results, but I came out quite differently from David. The next time we saw my parents, I gave each of them the test.
My mother completed it in the room where we all were, and she was finished in five or ten minutes. My father needed silence and shut the door behind him on an empty bedroom. He didn’t emerge for forty-five minutes.
When we scored it, they had each answered every single question identically!
First off, there are two strategies locked up in my anecdote for creating characters who differ from each other. One has been discussed a lot on the blog, that we can use Myers-Briggs or other personality tests to invent our characters. The other is, we can look around at real people we know or knew and use bits of them in our characters. Living (or dead) people offer traits we may not imagine out of our heads. We can write a short description of, say, seven actual people. Then we can stare at what we have and consider how we can use the descriptions in our stories.
Also, this anecdote makes me think about Melissa Mead’s comment. Real people and fictional ones are defined by their actions. Many factors shape personality, but two are certainly what happens to us and what we do about it.
My mother was an adolescent during the Depression. She never talked about that time, but I know the family was very poor, and there may have been times they didn’t have enough to eat, which I don’t doubt fueled her worrying. She was insanely (and sometimes embarrassingly) frugal. In a restaurant, for instance, after everyone had eaten the bread the server brought, she’d ask for more and stuff the second helping into her purse!
My father had a terrible childhood growing up in an orphanage. His joy may have been fueled by the certainty that everything in his future had to be better than that. He was a risk-taker and started his own business.
But it isn’t always so straightforward. My mother’s ethics when it came to property were slippery. If, when she was clothes shopping, for example, she liked a dress that had belt loops but no belt, she’d be outraged and would help herself to a matching belt. (She was never caught, and I would have pitied any store detective who nabbed her!)
My father professed to be horrified by this tendency in her, but I once saw him behave just as dodgily. He took me to a farm stand to buy corn, and, on the way, told me that the farmer always gave customers an extra ear when they bought a dozen. This time the farmer didn’t. When we got home, to my astonishment and dismay, he produced a thirteenth ear, which he’d pilfered.
I hasten to add that their children didn’t inherit our parents’ propensity to steal!
So two stressed childhoods, which were differently stressed, produced both similar and dissimilar actions. Same with our characters. While we distinguish them, we can also create likenesses, which will surprise readers. When something happens, we can decide on their responses, which will be predictable and not predictable.
Voice, like action, is a tool for character development. If these characters alternate POV, we can distinguish their voices. One can narrate in long, multi-clause sentences, that display an impressive vocabulary. The other voice can be direct, simple–short sentences and short words. One can often ask questions. The other can use exclamations. The narrations can reveal their inner lives. Going back to my parents, one inner life can be anxious, the other brimming with optimism. My WIP has two POV characters, one for the first half of the book, the other for the second. The first half is in the past tense, the second in present. I’m hoping that simply changing tense will go a long way toward differentiating them.
If we’re not writing in first person, or if only one MC narrates, we can use dialogue in the same way as I described in the last paragraph.
We can set up an argument between the two characters that will highlight their differences. In an argument, more than words and volume set people and characters apart. Again, it’s worth thinking about real people here. Some retreat into silence. Some play down a problem, others exaggerate it. There are physical differences, too. A friend’s eyebrows slant up alarmingly when she’s angry. A cousin tends to drum on something withe his fingertips. We can make a list!
Here are three prompts:
• We return to “The Three Little Pigs.” This time, have the them argue about house construction. Write their dialogue. Show their different personalities in the way they fight. If you can, without ever saying outright which pig builds which house, make the reader know.
• Describe five people you know, a paragraph or so for each. Then pick one of the Biblical plagues on Egypt, like frogs or boils. Write another paragraph about how they’d respond. If you like, use what you come up with in a story.
• Try a Freaky Friday idea. There’s a big power differential between your two MCs, like school principal versus a new student, or starship commander versus a cadet, or duchess versus a stable hand. Or any other asymmetric relationship you pick. Have them change places for a day, a week–whatever you like. Write a story about how they respond to their new situation.
Have fun, and save what you write!