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!

Facing the Music

Yesterday, I was part of a program in which one participant was evaluated by the others in a process called “Face the Music.” Over time, everyone in this program has to “face the music,” which isn’t a form of oral hazing; the evaluations are always kind.

But it started me thinking of trying this as a writing exercise. Facing the Music is different from an elevator story, in which you throw characters together in an elevator, make the elevator get stuck, and see how they respond. Of course, an elevator story doesn’t have to take place in an elevator – could be a life raft, a submarine in trouble, a hijacked airplane. In an elevator story, the tension originates from an outside source (the busted elevator) and builds because of the natures of the trapped people. In Face the Music, the tension, if there is any, arises entirely from the characters, and tension isn’t the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to learn more about your characters and possibly even find out where you’re letting them down.

So, what if I gather my characters together and make them evaluate one another? There are bunches of ways to do this: They can sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs in a gritty, charmless room, a setting you may see in a movie scene of some sort of group counseling. My characters will behave characteristically. The one who manipulates will manipulate; the compulsive truth-teller will be honest; the shy one will keep quiet.

Or I can give my characters a truth serum, so they’ll have to tell all. I can watch them react to finding out how their fellow characters really perceive them.

Or I can have them write anonymous evaluations, and I can pass the evaluations out to the respective characters. Despite the anonymity, I suspect some will still lie once the truth serum leaves their systems. With written evaluations I’ll see their handwriting and discover how they express themselves in writing. Unfortunately, in the book I’m working on now, many are illiterate.

Here’s a new idea: What if I introduce myself into the exercise? What if I’m the one evaluating my characters? I’m more than halfway through this novel, so I should know them pretty well. Oh, this is interesting! One is an underachiever. I had much higher hopes for this character. And I hate this other one, who isn’t my villain. I didn’t know that I hate him until now. He doesn’t pay much attention to my main character, who adores him, and I feel bad for her. He’s a cold fish. I absolutely like my villain, who, if he or she weren’t a killer, would be a complete delight. My main character is unfocused. I wish she’d concentrate on one thing and stick with it. The king is what he should be: selfish, unfeeling, ambitious. He gets an A+ for coming through just right.

I can also have my characters evaluate me. Some will want out of the book entirely, but others will want me to make them main. They will want their wishes more indulged.

You can play Face the Music with your characters in all these ways. One way or another may prove the most useful. The form that just worked best for me was evaluating everyone myself. Now I know that I have to give my underachiever more to do, and I have to make my main character choose what she most wants to want. And I’m glad to know how strongly I feel about the character I hate. I need to decide if I want to make him more hateful or not hateful at all. Cool.

If you play Face the Music, have fun, and save what you write!

I Spy

10:30 am, commuter train to New York City: Before sitting next to me, a stranger set his briefcase down on the seat so that it flopped partway onto my lap. He didn’t move it until I looked at him balefully. Then he apologized and repositioned it. Once seated, he sipped from a styrofoam cup of coffee or chai latte or whatever, then placed the cup on the floor, continuing to reach down occasionally and sip again. I’m keeping an eye on the cup. My nice cloth backpack, also on the floor, will stink forever if the cup topples and the whatever spills.

By the way, I’m typing these words with this stranger inches away, and I have no fear that he will look. Only we writers are nosy enough to care what our train neighbors do.

He just pulled his Wall Street Journal out of its plastic sheath and stuffed the plastic wrap behind him into the crack between the seat bottom and the seat back. I am almost certainly getting off the train before he does, so I won’t see if he removes the plastic when he stands up, but I am willing to bet he won’t. Ditto for the styrofoam cup. Maybe I’ll find them on my return trip. Or maybe before I leave I’ll be crazy enough to tell him to take his trash with him.

A few other details, because I don’t want you mis-imagining: gray suit, pale blue-and-white striped shirt, blue-patterned tie, shiny black shoes, gray hair cut short, probably in his fifties, tall, fit. When he was speaking on his blackberry a minute ago, very terse, soft-spoken, thank heaven.

Later, back home, in my office, hour irrelevant: I did get off the train before the stranger, and I issued no warnings. But there was a morning when I scolded someone. It’s a little embarrassing.

My routine when I take the train is to meditate and then to write, but often I fall asleep – especially delicious, the sleep that follows meditation. I was snoozing happily one day, when two men approached my seat. Through my fog, I heard them discussing, loudly, where to sit. (The train wasn’t crowded.) They decided to put themselves across the aisle from each other so that, they said, their legs wouldn’t be cramped. One sat next to me, I suppose because I’m too small to cramp anybody’s anything. For a few minutes the two exchanged loud pleasantries then lapsed into silence, which did me no good since I was wide awake.

I was absurdly angry but too cowardly to want an extended argument, so I waited till my stop came to tell the man next to me that he’d been rude and explain why. His response was that I should do my sleeping in bed at night. No remorse. No apology. And maybe he was right.

The point, of course, is character development. I could invent the lives of these three men. I could put them together and see how they rub against one another. (They just happened to be men, no special significance.)

While walking through New York City today I saw a man (male again) in a business suit and a cotton billed cap. What was up with a suit and a cap? I can speculate: Maybe he has 365 hats, all in different styles, and wears a fresh one every day. He throws each one away at night because by now it’s (ta da) old hat.

But if he’d sat next to me on the train I would have had more fodder for my guessing. People in close quarters tend to reveal themselves. On the train they talk on cell phones, ease out of shoes that pinch, play solitaire on their computers, leaf through magazines or read serious novels, and occasionally start an actual conversation.

So you might try cramming your characters together – in an elevator, a closet, a bank vault – and seeing how they react. You don’t have to work this into your story; you can do it on the side. A character who’s been holding out on you might reveal her inner nature if she’s trapped with three strangers in the back of a truck.

In my train anecdotes I was a character too. Coffee-or-tea man this morning could have been deducing about me too. What would he have learned (without reading from my laptop)? He could have seen without reading that I was writing prose, not making entries onto a spreadsheet, that I wore jeans rather than business attire, even that I think ahead, because I took out my subway Metrocard before leaving the train.

Watch yourself from the outside for a day. Spy on yourself just as you may spy on other people. What are your characteristic behaviors? Our own personality leaks into our fictional characters no matter what we do, but this time make it conscious. Deliberately give a character a characteristic that belongs to you. Put her into a confined place and use that characteristic to get her into trouble.

Have fun, and save what you write!