Posts Tagged characters

Help – my characters are all too similar! 5 tips to make them distinct

villa saraceno 201I’ve been asked this question twice recently – in a conversation on G+, and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar.

And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios. Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identikit – they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.

So how can you flesh them out as individuals?

1 Look for incompatibility

The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.

So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.

Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.

2 Include this in the story

Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.

A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests – a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.

Or if your characters are embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).

3 Humour, stress and swearing

Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments, and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, or curse. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.

4 Keep track of their different outlooks

With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.

Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.

Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant – and of course erroneous – assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.

5 Have dedicated revision days for particular characters

You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.

nyn2 2014 smlebookcovernyn3There are tips on creating characters in Writing Characters To Keep Readers Captivated and on using characters’ personalities to create your plot in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart.

You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)

So You Want To Be A Writer - Episode 29 by Surrey Hills Community Radio on Mixcloud


And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?

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‘Demons, frustrations and betrayal’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Scott D Southard

for logoMy guest this week is making a return appearance to the series. Last time he wrote about how he’d driven his wife bonkers by playing certain albums that evoked the souls of his characters. This good spouse will surely be donning the earplugs again as his musical choice for his current novel is a striking album by Fiona Apple, which consists of drums, close-up vocals and percussive piano. He describes the pieces as having the feel of a therapy session, all raw emotion and obsession – and perfect for his characters who are all connected by an act of betrayal. He is Scott D Southard and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

And there’ll be a slight hiatus in my posting schedule this weekend as I’m teaching at WriteCon in Zurich. (This is tremendously exciting as it’s the first time anyone’s flown me anywhere to teach!) So I’m tied up preparing for that at the moment, but I’m anticipating some interesting issues to share afterwards.

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Clumsy dialogue – your mission statement for a subtle scene

246805948_c436365936_oI was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.

Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.

But wait!

Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.

What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.

It’s not all speech

Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.

Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.

Clarity first

Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.

So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.

Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Thanks for the elephant pic Bitboy

Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!

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4 reasons why your novel’s dialogue sounds awkward or stilted

dialogue unnaturalIn a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.

1 Trying to say everything in dialogue

Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.

Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.

If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.

2 Including too many banalities

Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:

Hello.
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….

Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?

Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:

Your Chablis, sir.’

or

Do sit down.’

This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?

As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.

Roz Morris Peter Snell dialoguesml3 The exposition info-dump

This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.

As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’

So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.

4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics

We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.

If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:

He heard the Scots burr in her voice.

Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.

Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.

nyn2badgeThere’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…

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The inner horse – and your fictional character’s true nature

Lifeform Three Roz MorrisI was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’

To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.

Not as mad as it seems

But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.

Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.

If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…

The Johari Window

Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:

  • the things the character and everyone else knows
  • the things only the character knows
  • the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
  • the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.

These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.

That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)

Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality

Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.

This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…

On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.

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And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner

SONY DSCPhew, the plot book is ready. It seems to have taken a marathon of effort; much longer than the characters book. So much that I’m wondering if this tells me something about the nature of plot.

In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.

But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.

Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each example spawned many possible discussions. There were as many exceptions as rules, possibilities upon possibilities for making a story rich, or exciting, or surprising, or heartbreaking. I have come away with this: although there are certain fundamentals, the department of plot and storytelling is much more tricky, finely balanced and infinitely varied than the department of characters.

You’d think it would be the other way around, because people provide the heart of a book. And aren’t they the most unique element of any story? No, by comparison, fictional characters follow a number of rules we already understand from life – those of how real people behave, are motivated and react. But a plot – what you do with your characters, themes and story metaphors – can go absolutely anywhere, especially in non-genre fiction. Good plotters invent new ways to use events and ideas. Writing this book has taken me on my own journey of understanding. I’ve ended up with a deeper appreciation of the infinite versatility of stories, and indeed a greater sense of wonder.

Or maybe it means only that I find plotting more difficult than creating characters. I wouldn’t be the first author with literary leanings who felt this. And in case this all sounds airy-fairy, let me assure you that the book is about practical advice and examples. Plus games, of course.

To whet your appetite, this is a post I was going to expand for the book and rework with prose examples, but eventually tackled another way. If you’re an old-timer here you might recognise it.

Midpoints on a continuum of change – Blade Runner

neeta lindI never miss an opportunity to talk about Blade Runner. One day Dave and I were discussing it and said: ‘which event is the midpoint?’

My memory does the very opposite of total recall (see what I did there?), so I hazarded that it was where Roy finally finds Pris and they discover they are the last replicants left alive. Or was it the scene where Rachael comes to Deckard’s apartment, they have a heart-to heart about the fact she’s a replicant and get romantic. Or was it both – as each significant story strand might have a midpoint…

When we checked we found the Roy/Pris scene is past the middle. The actual middle is the scene where Deckard’s boss tells him he will have to kill Rachael, even though she’s not one of the renegade bunch in his original brief. We’d both forgotten two other strong turning-point contenders – the scene where Deckard kills the first replicant, Zhora, and feels unexpectedly bad about it. Or the scene where Deckard is nearly killed by Leon and is rescued by Rachael (who has ventured into scuzzy places where nice girls never go). Midpoints galore, it seems.

Midpoint, schmidpoint

Backtrack for a moment. What’s the midpoint anyway and why do we bother to identify it? It’s a moment where the story significantly shifts gear. Readers (and moviegoers) seem to have an internal clock, and generally like it if this shift comes roughly half-way through the story.

Here are some typical forms a midpoint can take.

• It can be a false victory – perhaps the main character has apparently got what they wanted and discovered it was a shallow goal or has got them in big trouble. (Deckard has after all just managed to shoot the first of the replicants he is hunting.)
• It can look like the original quest went horribly wrong and now they have to sort out a much more involved mess.
• It might be an echo of a scene from much earlier in the story, but done for different, more serious reasons.
Whichever it is, at the midpoint everything turns grave. It is a moment when the conflict and journey become internal as well as external. The character’s need is deeper, truer. The consequences become more significant. The characters pass a point of no return.

Back to Blade Runner
The reason we couldn’t remember the actual midpoint of Blade Runner is that there are significant shifts for the characters all the way through. The movie is a continuum of internal change. The characters are transforming inside all the time, discovering deeper needs, acting in the grip of impulses they have never before faced, getting into deeper trouble and discovering profounder joys – which increases what is at stake. Also, there are two protagonists. This is one of the reasons the story has such momentum. It builds and builds, propelling the characters towards what will be the most significant moment of their lives. And every scene has a sense of change.

If you build a story so that every scene commits the characters more drastically, unexpectedly and personally to their path, it will be engrossing.

Thanks for the Blade Runner pic, Neeta Lind  Thanks for the Jenga pic, Ed Garcia

ebookcovernyn3The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

Meanwhile, let’s discuss! Which do you find more difficult – plot or character? I’d also be interested to know what you write – genre, non-genre – to see if there’s any pattern.
And merry Christmas.

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‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logoMy guest this week had a real struggle to get her novel into shape. She was used to seeking inspiration from music, but found that nothing she listened to was helping. In her head was a jumble of characters and voices, all clamouring but making no sense. Then she happened upon a video of her own daughter-in-law, singing an a capella composition of her own that layered and alternated lines from random blogs. This quirky piece gave her the courage to put her characters together – and see where the harmonies came. She is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Spurred by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dianne Greenlay

for logoMy guest this week has a taste for the adventurous. Her novel is set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies in 1717, and her characters are unwittingly pulled into a hazardous sea journey. The music that sustained this imaginative voyage is epic and foreboding, but not without its lighter elements. My guest discovered in her research that sailors used dance to ward off boredom on the interminable days at sea, so she wrote a scene to the soundtrack of a reel. But it became more than dance; when the characters shrugged off their tensions they began to behave in unexpected and delightful ways. In case you’re imagining it’s all lace, beards and cutlasses, though, there’s a distinctly modern note at the end: Moby makes an appearance (no, not the whale). The author is Dianne Greenlay (one of my co-conspirators at the League of Extraordinary Authors) and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose

nail your novel passage of timeDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles translate well between the two story media, others don’t.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view  , dialogue   and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).

When is it?

One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?

Movies and prose handle this in different ways.

Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.

Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.

But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.

A sense of time

As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.

But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.

If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)

Filling gaps

Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.

What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!

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‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach

for logoMy guest this week is releasing her debut novel, a tale of love, loss and friendship centring on a pair of twins. She says that music was her anchor while she was brainstorming ideas and exploring the characters, helping to deepen her characters and refine her plot points. Her soundtrack ranges from the mournful to the joyous, with tracks by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Robbie Williams and Samuel Barber. She is Christina Banach and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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