Friday, March 4, 2022

Making Your Characters Real Individuals, Making Them Stand Out

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my past online classes posted a great question that sums up the main struggle most of us have with writing vivid characters.

How do I make my characters more distinctly individual? Different from each other, realistic enough to be believable, clearly so on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be individuals: distinct from others in the story. If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.

One key to writing clearly individual characters is their backstory, the history that informs their story decisions. That's internal research that's often fun (and challenging!) to do.

Another way is external: looking at their particular quirks, way of moving, how they stand or use their hands.

Problem is, we repeat. Unknowingly, often. We find something that works and we unconsciously deliver it to more than one character. Like a love of hats. Or funky glasses. Or boots that make noise. Then we're back to the blur again, too many similar traits.

It's fine in early drafts. Characters often read eerily similar--to each other, or more likely, to us. We give them our values, our music, our favorite foods or clothing. Or we make them our ideals, what we'd be if we weren't so flawed.

Totally normal. We look in the mirror as we begin to write, even if we're writing memoir that features other people. It's our filter and it's how we get started.

But the goal is to open our awareness to seeing the characters as apart from ourselves or anything we know well. Become curious about who they might be if they aren't like us or have traits that confound us. I find that's when characters begin to come alive on the page.

I love character questionnaires as a way to get started. Write 20 questions, as far-reaching as you can imagine, then picture yourself interviewing your character on paper. First go for external: how do you like to dress, music you love, what's in your fridge, what's under your bed. Then imagine the character in a bar or airport or doctor's office, and study what they do with their body while waiting or sitting or whatever. Take notes! Explore how different they can be from you, then how you can push them even further away from what you know and into who they are, uniquely as themselves.

That's when the fun begins!

Once you've begun to see them move, live, and breathe apart from what you can imagine, there's a next stage--and this is what my student was asking about. How do you make your characters different from each other, not just different from you?

This week's writing exercise offers four steps to find out:

1. Choose a published book you love. Make sure it has at least three characters. Find a scene where at least two of these characters are present, early in the book, preferably, when we are first meeting them.

2. Make notes on how the writer describes what each character looks like, how they walk across a room, what they do with their hands, what their voice sounds like. What has this writer chosen to offer you, the reader, so the character comes across fast and effectively? Skilled writers can capture a character's uniqueness in one or two lines.

3. Now go back to your own book. Make a chart with three columns. Write one character's name at the top of each column, so you have a separate column for each of them and can easily compare (this works faster than writing a scene, although that will come). On the left side of the chart write these categories: Hair, Skin, Clothing, Gestures, Movement, Objects, Voice.

4. Fill in the answers for each character for each category. For instance, your character Joe might have black hair, olive skin, wear jean jackets and boots, talk with his hands, walk slow, carry a penknife, and have a raspy cigarette-smoker's voice. Compare what you get for each of the characters.

Ask yourself: are they different enough? How can you make them more so?

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