Create your characters from different moulds

58671977_0e83de32ff_zI’m somewhat preoccupied with characters as I’m finishing NYN 2: Bring Characters To Life. I’ve recently read two novels with several main characters – one that made them real and the other that didn’t. I thought it would be interesting to compare the key differences.

The former is Ruth Rendell’s The Keys To The Street, which uses several points of view, all with their own internal identity. The shaky one is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It follows eight separate people but they all sound exactly the same.

Briefly, The Keys To The Street is about a handful of characters in Regent’s Park, London, whose lives intersect over one summer. The Slap begins as an extended family gathers for a suburban barbeque. One of the children gets out of hand and one of the other parents gives it a slap. There is uproar and the novel explores the ripples.

In both, the narration is close third person, so although the ‘I’ pronoun isn’t used we’re following the thoughts and feelings of each individual.

Rendell is good at characters who sound distinct on the page. Their vocabulary, thought processes and speech rhythms make them into separate, recognisable people. Tsiolkas’s dialogue, both quoted and internal, sounds like it all comes from the same person.

nynfiller2Culture and social milieu

Characters might sound similar because they come from the same culture and social milieu. But even so, there can be individual variation from the characters’ different natures. In the simplest terms, some would be introvert and some extravert. Some will see the glass as half-full. The emotions and urges behind their speech and thoughts would not be the same.

In The Slap they all have similar levels of aggression and introspection. In The Keys To The Street, there are several characters who are homeless or nearly homeless, but each has their own internal landscape. Some feel persecuted, some are tragically numbed.

Indeed, characters in the same milieu have many reasons not to be similar. They might have an assortment of occupations, which would make them tackle a variety of life problems and people.

In The Slap we potentially have these, but none of the differences are used. The TV scriptwriter sounds just like the civil servant and the businessman. In The Keys To The Street, the girl who works in the museum has different daily influences from the former butler who walks everyone’s dogs. These environments shine through their vocabulary and the comparisons they use. Their back stories are also vastly different, which affect how much each of them will trust other characters. Again, the girl in the museum believes good of people whereas the dog-walker suspects nasty motives in everyone.

Behaviour in extremis

Sequences of anger, sex and other kinds of extremis should tear the characters’ masks off. They should show us who they really are.

In The Slap, all the characters default to one pattern of behaviour when upset or emotional. They want to smash things or people. They brood on conversations and  wish they had hit the offending person, pummelled their faces, grabbed them by the hair and shouted obscenities at them. When they curse, which they all do plenty of, they use the same words. Readers really notice when all the characters have the same curse personality. When they have sex, they all have the same preferences and urges.

In The Keys To The Street, the characters react according to their personalities, even when roused to the same emotion. When angry, the mentally unbalanced drug addict uses violence. The dog-walker resorts to blackmail or spits (or worse) in his employer’s tea. The museum curator’s former boyfriend is also violent, but immediately regretful. One emotion: three individual ways to handle it.

Other private moments

Other private moments can be very revealing. In The Slap, many of the characters are inclined to look at their reflection or a body part and think about their lives. In The Keys To The Street, the characters have their diverse ways of reflecting. Many of them don’t need to manufacture a specific thinking activity; they do something from their usual routine. This makes their reflective scenes different from each other. The dog walker collects his animals and does his job, meanwhile plotting and fulminating. The violent psychotic takes crack. The tragic down-and-out goes for his long walks, pushing the barrow that contains his possessions. What they do to get thinking time can be ways to differentiate their souls.

If you’re interested in either of these books, here’s Guardian Book Club on The Keys To The Street

And here’s a review of The Slap in The London Review of Books

Thanks for the pic r h

Have you read other novels that handle several point-of-view characters and differentiate them well? Or conversely, novels that do it badly? Let’s discuss!

GIVEAWAY On the Red Blog, Andrew James is giving away 2 signed copies of his novel Blow Your Kiss Hello. For a chance to win, he wants you to reply or tweet where the book title comes from. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Find it on the Red Blog now

nyn2covsmlIf you liked this post, you might like NAIL YOUR NOVEL: Bring Characters To Life, coming in May. Find out as soon as it’s released by signing up for my newsletter. Latest edition of this random and infrequent publication can be found here    


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  1. #1 by kevinonpaper on April 7, 2013 - 2:22 pm

    I like John Scalzi, but he’s terrible at distinct characterization. All of his characters are snarky, self-righteous, and omniscient. Which makes the reader think this is actually just a fictionalization of the author him/herself.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 7, 2013 - 6:12 pm

      Hi Kevin! You hit the nail on the head. If all the characters are the same, the only conclusion is that it’s the author. With certain material that can get a tad uncomfortable…

  2. #3 by Jennie on April 7, 2013 - 2:23 pm

    Great points, Roz! You did an excellent job of summarizing what makes memorable, distinct characters. To switch genres for a moment, I can think of two U.S. TV shows with ensemble casts that many people know that have done this.

    As a kid, we had a M*A*S*H trivia game, and one category was quotable. Most often, you would know which character said it as soon as you heard the line because it had a distinct rhythm/voice/outlook on life. Another, current, show that does that is NCIS. When I was getting back into writing a few years ago, I think the best thing that ever happened was getting inspired by NCIS and writing fanfic for the show because all of those characters have strong, distinct voices. And when I really hit the right notes on them, I could hear the actors saying the lines in my head. Also, the hardest character for me to write well is DiNozzo because I never watch movies, so I struggle to think in the movie analogies he uses all the time. Like you said, it’s the approach and they way the character reflects.

    I’ve tried to carry that over into my Exeter fiction. Now, the toughest thing, I think, is trying to fix the issue when you’ve realized you have it. I had one point where my critique partner said she had trouble distinguishing between Dan and Evan. Evan’s voice just didn’t stand out enough. She was right. So I pulled back and thought about Evan and what influenced him, what his background was – and I found the answer. Then it was a matter of going through and revising. When I pulled together the character profiles in We Are Exeter, voice was a huge part of it – seeing how they answered in the Q&A sections gave me tone, voice, etc. — and I know those will be a resource as the characters show up in various stories because they’re a snapshot of how the character speaks.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 7, 2013 - 6:17 pm

      Hi Jennie! Good points about the characters’ dialogue. TV, movies and drama have an easier time because the actors will take on some of that burden, but in a novel it’s all done by the author. But it was interesting hearing how you sorted out your characters who were in danger of sounding the same – especially by drawing on their backgrounds. Using Q&As is contentious – some writers swear by them, some think they’re a waste of time. We have to do whatever works for our particular style.

  3. #5 by Jennie on April 7, 2013 - 2:24 pm

    Reblogged this on Welcome to Exeter… and commented:
    Roz does a great job talking about how to make characters distinct.

  4. #6 by Rosanna on April 7, 2013 - 3:34 pm

    Wow, what a comprehensive post! I’m a feature writer but I sure could use many of the ideas you brought forward.

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 7, 2013 - 6:19 pm

      Hi Rosanna. I remember your comment from a previous post, when you said you were venturing into novel-writing after a career in features. Hope it’s going well and I’m glad my post helped.

  5. #8 by philipparees on April 7, 2013 - 3:38 pm

    Followed this all the way to the LR’s review of The Slap. Could not help wondering why it devoted ( and I use the word deliberately) for it seemed ‘devoted’ to quote at such liberal length the identikit sex in a work of such transparent surface-ness, whether of character or of raunchy painful (un) penetration. Having been involved in the plot in the film, ( and I confess to spitting at all that Aus political correctness…as well as wanting to hit the child too- and its whining mother!) it was one of those films where throughout, one’s aesthetic taste was at war with the compulsion to see it through. Bit like Sound of Music! If you see what I mean

    One thing this post resurrects for me is character’s delineation in dialogue. I have always tried to write dialogue with no need for identifying the speaker ( ever, if possible) If the language is not distinct enough to make the speaker as clear as a voice in a room ( sometimes direct, sometimes overheard) then it needs re-writing. But my encounters with editors have often required what seem superfluous…the ‘he’ and ‘she said’ addenda. Problem: Is this lazy reading or too demanding writing?Or maybe the requirements for signposts attest to something related to visualisation. I am so dominantly an auditory medium writer, that perhaps I attend only to intonation.
    I’d be interested in other’s views on this?

    • #9 by Dave on April 7, 2013 - 6:21 pm

      I also read (or tried to read) The Slap – as one often does when handed a book by one’s spouse who is snarling about it. Frequently there’d be a line of dialogue and I’d have no clue who had spoken until it was explained in the following paragraph. As a great believer in being able to cover up the speaker’s name on the page and identifying them just by their voice, that earned the book a big demerit right away. Then, as the LRB review elaborates, it just got worse…

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 7, 2013 - 6:27 pm

      Hi Philippa! All LRB articles are long, at least in the print edition, so I guess the reviewer was having to go into that depth to get the length. However, I did feel she’d been sitting on my shoulders as I read the book. And I think it deserved to be examined at such length, especially when you look at the plaudits the book got. How on earth was a work so clumsy allowed a sniff at the Booker? Something is very wrong.
      But I digress. It may well have been a different experience on TV. For one thing, the actors could add their own characteristics and thus fill the holes. But it wasn’t written originally as a drama, it was intended to be prose – and at that it fails. (Certainly, on Booker level it fails.)

      You make a good point about dialogue and delineation. Sometimes it’s handy to add an identifier from time to time, but I prefer to find other ways to keep the reader aware of who’s talking – if only for the sake of variety. But you’re right that we have different blind spots and strengths. Some of us are so sensitive to rhythm and intonation that the differences are obvious. Some of us naturally describe the sounds of an experience before we think to add the feelings or the visuals. Some writers have no ear at all. Interesting point to debate!

  6. #11 by jadereyner on April 7, 2013 - 4:30 pm

    I really enjoyed your post, thank you. As a total newbie in the author and self-publishing realms I am trying to read and absorb as much as I can and this post for me is brilliant. My debut novel has a number of characters (although only two main ones), however throughout the story we get glimpses of what is happening to the other characters and how their lives all interlink. As a result I have a sequel which will explore some of the characters further and I am also thinking about giving a couple of them their own book.

    Your post above has made me aware of the way that characters are developed and points out how you can make distinctions between them rather than just by appearance but also by mannerisms and how they react to situations etc..

    I really enjoyed it and I shall be taking it all on board and bearing it in mind as I continue to progress my characters and my journey.

    Thank you very much.!

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 7, 2013 - 6:29 pm

      Thanks, Jade! Glad my post has helped you with your book. There’s definitely LOADS more advice on differentiating characters in the book I’m finishing. It’s a fascinating subject. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment!

  7. #13 by authorleannedyck on April 7, 2013 - 7:07 pm

    Thank you for this article. I’ve taken notes. I know your words will help me build 3-D characters.

  8. #15 by Ruby Barnes (@Ruby_Barnes) on April 7, 2013 - 9:52 pm

    Roz, usually I write reviews of novels that I more or less enjoy, but I never quite pinned down what bothered me about The Slap until now. I had to keep checking back about who was who because they were all out of the same mould. You hit the nail on the head, as usual.
    I haven’t read The Keys but will do.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2013 - 7:13 pm

      Hi Ruby! Glad to hear you had this problem with The Slap too. I think you’d enjoy Keys. Ruth Rendell has a disturbing and very fertile imagination. I haven’t tried her Wexford novels as I’m not that fond of detectives, but I’m going to be reading more of her standalone novels.

  9. #17 by Teddi Deppner on April 7, 2013 - 11:23 pm

    It is so useful to have specifics when discussing this subject. Thanks for contrasting these two novels, Roz, so we can actually see the difference (should we choose to go that far).

    Even without reading them, however, your post included enough info to remind me of some key principles that I needed to hear today (in the midst of crafting some characters, myself). Thanks!

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2013 - 7:14 pm

      Thanks, Teddi! I find it fascinating to work out what makes a book gel and what doesn’t. I was lucky to read both those books quite close together – otherwise I might not have been able to remember them both so well.

  10. #19 by jwtroemner on April 8, 2013 - 1:31 am

    The Slap doesn’t sound much like a book I’d read– not just because of your critique of it (I’ll try to take it to heart), but also because I’ve never been much a fan of suburban pettiness and family squabbles. Keys to the Street, though….

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2013 - 7:15 pm

      ‘Suburban pettiness…’ indeed, The Slap does seem to have a lot of suburb angst. Keys explores more fundamental impulses and situations. I’d recommend it.

  11. #21 by Dennis Langley on April 8, 2013 - 12:34 pm

    I recently did a series of posts on character creation. Even though we, as writers, tend to migrate to specific personas, there are so many variables that there is really no excuse for not having characters that are unique.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2013 - 7:17 pm

      Dennis, it’s interesting that you should mention these variables. I’ve been trying to break this down for my book. We don’t always have to create copies of ourselves, or of just one character. We actually have the means to create many characters if we look deep enough. Fascinating subject. I’ll check your posts out.

  12. #23 by karensdifferentcorners on April 8, 2013 - 2:59 pm

    Hi Roz! This is a great post! I have been revising one of my novels and two other writers have pointed out different aspects of my heroine. One is, that she isn’t assertive enough and two being that her perspective doesn’t change over the course of the ten year time period. Which it should considering she’s going from the age of 12 to 22. You given me some great ideas!

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2013 - 7:18 pm

      Thanks, Karen! Sometimes we can’t see these things for ourselves. The assertiveness problem is easy to solve. The other one may take more time. How are you going to tackle it? Timelines, graphs…?

  13. #25 by Candy Korman on April 8, 2013 - 4:38 pm

    “Keys” is a truly memorable read, largely because of the characters. I’m a big Ruth Rendell (AKA Barbara Vine) fan and she always managed to create fully realized characters, using the details of their lives (objects, food, etc.) and in their use of language. She’s a master of characterizations.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 8, 2013 - 7:19 pm

      Hi Candy! Keys is terrific, isn’t it? The murder is hardly important. The characters are all. Keys is the first Rendell I’ve read. I’ve read two Barbara Vine and assumed the Rendells were more conventional crime fiction, but Keys made me want to read more Rendell as well. She is a very skilful writer.

  14. #27 by journalpulp on April 9, 2013 - 11:43 pm

    I semi-recently read 1Q84 — a Herculean task, frankly, though I did really like the first two-thirds of the book. I am not, as so many are, a categorical Murikami fan, but there’s something about him that I sometimes like, and part of it is the way he fleshes out his characters.

    This book, the first two-thirds, anyway, created characters that had me turning pages like no book has done in a long, long time. There’s a scene in the middle, when the female lead (Aomame) meets at last the powerful cult-leader she is slated to destroy, that absolutely astounded me.

    • #28 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 10, 2013 - 6:08 am

      Ray – always fantastic to see you here. I had a scary encounter with a dead sheep that put me off Murakami, although I have heard from others that that was his hardest book. Your comment here, though, makes me curious about 1Q84, in a way that may tempt me to overcome my fears. I’ll get the Kindle sample at the very least.

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