10.01.2009

Characters Are People Too

10.01.2009
In my writing, I’ve discovered – okay, I admitted – that my characters need work. Not in my head, but in paper. I know my characters. I know them! But that doesn’t matter. It does, but not really. What does matter is that you (put down the ice-cream scoop and read this), yes you, know my characters. What does matter is that halfway through the book you have a good idea of what the character would do. You (my beloved reader) should freely be able to identify the many characters voices from the narrator or other characters. They’re all different. You know, like people.

I know that we are talking about a two-dimensional medium, but that is no reason for our little imaginary friends and foes to be flat. I read somewhere that flat characters should be abolished, “we only want round characters,” was said. I’m going to have to disagree on that one. I think characters should be shapeless, odd fitting, jagged even. You know, like people.

They should have problems and secrets. Just think of your own, and those around you. Like the time you smoked a joint in your moms mini-van, or when your friend did nothing buy flirt with your boyfriend, or the time your cousin almost overdosed on heroine, or when you masturbated in the school’s bathroom, or when you shoplifted those bra’s from the mall, or when… I can go one all night on this (really, I can and it’s frightening). In any case, I trust you get the idea. Now think, or try to imagine how each and every one of those experiences could have molded that person with the inevitable passage of time. Did being a junkie make them a better counselor? Having an overbearing Christian mother push her to join a satanic cult? Did sleeping around in high school make him a faithful husband or an incurable man-slut? Flaws, problems and how they are overcome: It is these characteristics that make our imaginary friends interesting. You know, like people.

How are your characters? Do you like them? Do they annoy you? Are they like you, or totally imagined, or somewhere in between?

19 comments:

GutsyWriter

Up until now, my characters are real since I'm writing a memoir. In the future, I might attempt fiction, but I do find that rather scary. I'm not sure my creativity can handle that.

Tina Lynn

Yes. Yes. This is a definite problem for me. My crit partner told me that if I didn't have tags on the dialog she would never have been able to guess who was who. I'm working on this.

Also, I find that since I know so much more than everyone else about my character I often assume that in my writing which is bad. I was stupid and discussed my manuscript with my daughter as she was reading it. I missed a huge opportunity to find out what I was forgetting to include in the story itself.

Natalie L. Sin

Depends on the character. I tend to have great affection for my male protagonists, even the ones I do horrible things to.

Also, you really don't see the word "manslut" enough these days!

The Limit

i really like your idea that characters should be "odd fitting, jagged," you're right people are like that. each of us is a contradiction of ourselves, and you find the unlikeliest of people as friends who jar. good luck with translating this to the page. i'd be very interested in reading some.

Shadow

my characters have multiple personalities, hehehehe. just kidding, since i haven't thought that far. i think characters should be as you find them in life. perfect people don't appeal to me, flaws make them believable, a bit of passion and success to inspire us? sure! but up on a pedestal? no.

Okie

I always have a hard time finding the right balance with my characters.

I want to expose some of their quirky elements that make them feel more "real"...but at the same time, if they get too quirky then they just become fake. So my characters are often walking the tightrope between bland and over-the-top, trying to be just believable enough.

L. T. Host

Hence the difficulty of writing. You have this painting in your head, a movie or what have you. But you need to get it out of your brain, through your brush or camera or keyboard into the mind of someone else, in much the same form.

THAT's why it's an art. It takes skill, just like any other art form, to give someone that window into your mind.

Kate

When reading, I love it when character's surprize me. When I think that I know a character and then all of a sudden they reviel another side to themselves. I hope that I do that in my writing to. That the reader slowly gets to know the character better as they read.

Amber Tidd Murphy

How did you know about that time I masturbated in the bathroom at school?!

I love my main character, Laurel, because she is almost exactly like me.

The supporting cast resemble many of the great loves of my life, and they all annoy me equally, though in vastly different ways. :)

Iapetus999

I think the most important thing is that your readers care about your characters...either for their success or their failure. The worst is when your readers go "meh...who cares."

Always a mom

Hi, I have never written any stories and don't know if I can be considered a "writer" but I have always had the extra- artistic yearning to be creative in pretty much every sector of the arts world. I love to write, draw, paint, sing and play musical instruments. Your site seems interesting. I would like to thank you for your comment on my blog about 2012. I am sure that you were right about the Millenium ordeal being worse than anything that may occur 3 years from now.

Travener

I have found that characters "grow" as I write. I start off with a sense of who they are -- this one's got a damaged soul, that one's footloose -- but they gather complexity as I go along. Sometimes they take unpredictable paths. One of my characters, Martha -- whom I love -- developed into a hyper-sexed joker right before my eyes, completely serendipitously. That was marvelous. What you need to avoid is describing your characters too much. Elmore Leonard refuses even to say what color their hair is. I like to be a little more descriptive than that, but it's their actions, their voice that really fleshes them out.

FictionGroupie

I love coming up with the character's backstory. Without having that in my head, I feel like I'm writing wooden people. Since my background is in social work, I often approach the character as if I'm doing a psychological profile of a patient. I want to know their history, what their parents were like, what moments changed everything for them, etc.

Cammie

Terrific post. It's interesting how hard "fleshing out" characters can sometimes be for us creative types. I've found that it really helps to do little writing exercises - contrived as they may seem - to get a fuller picture of one's characters. Also, I agree with you about the whole cause-and-effect thing, i.e., would an overbearing Christian mother inadvertently push her child into a Satanic cult? I am considering all this before attempting my novel rewrite; in this next draft, I plan to go deeper with my protagonists' families so that my readers will understand WHY my characters act the way they do.

Literary Cowgirl

So dead on. I have a character who is almost too perfect. I was starting to wonder about him, until I had a dream that gave me the whole story. He'd been in trouble with the law, lived on the streets and overcame a crack addiction. I was able to do so much more with him once I figured out how he got where he was. It also gave him motivation to want to save my main character (an alcoholic) that went beyond him just wanting to get with her. I love a character's dirty secrets.

Nevine

This is a great topic! Characters are a tricky business. Let's see... I'll have to admit that most of my characters are mishmashes of people I've met, run into, befriended, known, etc. in one way or another. I never base a character entirely on someone I knew - that is just a no no for me, not only for privacy issues, but because it's totally unoriginal. Here's the way it works for me: I'll be talking with someone, or I'll be out somewhere, and all of a sudden a person will do something that pulls me away from what I'm supposed to be doing and captures my attention completely, even if it's for a brief 5 seconds. I'm mesmerized, stricken. I have that little incident rolling around in my head for a while, minutes, or hours, or days, depending. I scribble a note in my journal for future reference - for when I need to pull that out and develop it into a character for just the right story. Do I like my characters? It's not about liking or hating them, I think. It's about whether or not I can form a bond with them and come to understand why it is that they are the way they are.

Okie

As a heads up, I've awarded you a blog award...stop by my blog to pick it up. :)

Lazy Writer

I just linked here from Cammie's blog. This is a wonderful post and the timing is perfect for me because I'm trying to strengthen my characters right now.

Yvette Ward-Horner

One-dimensional characters can really ruin a good story. Sometimes, my characters surprise me by taking over and doing things that I hadn't planned. Other times, I really have to sit and think about who they are and where they came from. In the novel I'm working on, one of the characters has started to seem like a caricature, so I decided to write a short story about something major that happened in her life a long time ago. This is really forcing me to sit and think about who she is and what might have happened to her.

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