I talked last week about character names, this week I’m talking more generally about the people we create and grow to love… and loathe…
Readers have to feel something for your characters. The readers have to want to turn the page because they want to know what happens next – will John Smith be OK? Will he overcome the obstacle?
Characters have to change and learn something about themselves along the journey of the story. Changes can be brought on my external forces (e.g. the end of the world in ‘2012’, or the tsunami in ‘The Impossible’) or internal (e.g. Bill Murray’s characters in ‘Scrooged’ and ‘Groundhog Day’). Even internal changes are brought about by external forces; the three ghosts in the first example and the repeating days in the second.
People you know: there’s nothing stopping you writing (hopefully nice things) about your friends, family, colleagues. It doesn’t mean to say you replicate their entire entity but they might have quirks, favourite phrases, appearance characteristics that you can use. Most people, once they realise you’re a writer, will be only too keen to be included in your writing, providing you don’t kill them off!
- Accents – less is more; indicate where someone’s from but don’t have their entire speech in that accent (or slang speak) as you’ll alienate readers who don’t know that part of the country / world. That said, a piece should feel authentic so if you’re writing historical, your characters won’t speak as we do now but don’t go mad, use just enough. I talk more about accents on http://morgenbailey.freeforums.org/putting-journal-entries-in-a-book-t81.html.
- Body movements – there are phrases connected with the body that can be trimmed, e.g. he shrugged his shoulders, nodded his head, she replied with a big grin on her face. In those instances, the ‘his shoulders’, ‘his head’ and ‘on her face’ can go because the phrases still make sense – we know shrugging can only be done by shoulders, nodding by a character’s head and grins by the face.
- Flaws – all characters should have flaws. No one is perfect, even the good guys (and gals). Most readers will find characters with a disability, however small (a lisp, a limp), endearing. As well as external flaws, your characters can, and should, have internal flaws, e.g. thinking they’re not as attractive as they are, thinking they’re more attractive etc. On the flipside, consider giving your antagonist (the bad guy) a redeemable quality. As the cliché goes, not everything is black and white.
- Names – Character names are important as we often get a sense of their personality by what they’re called. A Mavis is likely to be older than a Britney and would, usually, act differently. Avoid having names starting with the same letter; if you have a Todd talking to a Ted, the reader can easily get confused. Bill and Ted would be fine and as we know, they had a wonderful time back in the late 1980s. Try to avoid starting your sentences with your character’s name, as it can get repetitive and obvious. I’ve often recommended to my editing clients to write a list of their (your) characters in a five-column portrait table: 1. A-Z going down the page (at least two lines per letter); 2. Female first name (& chapter no. if you’re writing a novel); 3. Female surname / chapter no.; 4. Male first name / chapter no.; 5. Male surname / chapter no. As well as ensuring they don’t all start with the same letter, it encourages them (you) to try for the more unusual letters. I have this table in a Word document. Just let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like me to email it to you.
- Quantity – don’t have too many characters in your stories. Two or three is usually enough for a short story. I read Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes At The Museum for a college course. The novel had about a dozen (eleven, from memory) different female characters. I ended up drawing a family tree (they were all related on the maternal side) and admit I was struggling but I persevered and was very glad I did… she became my favourite living author.
- Slang – Like using accents, less is definitely more. If a reader has to try to work out what the characters are saying, it’s going to pull them out of the story or at least slow them down. You don’t want anything that can distract them from the (hopefully) fast pace of your novel. I’d say OK for a minor character where they have two or three lines. The thing about dialogue is that it should tell us about the character by what they say. Slang is a good way of ‘placing’ someone.”
Who is your favourite character in a published work that we might know. Why do you like them so much?
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on this topic are… Armand Rosamilia, Carol Crigger, Chris Redding, Christopher Starr, Ditrie Sanchez, Graham Smith 1, Graham Smith 2, Jane Davis, Morgen Bailey (last week’s), Nina Munteanu, Paul Lell, Sandra Humphrey, TJ Perkins 1, TJ Perkins 2.
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