Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Five Things Characters Are Not

Writers are supposed to create characters. Nothing wrong there.

But sometimes we get this mad-scientist-type sense of power from the process: I can create anyone to do anything I want. BWAHAHAHAHA! (Or however you transcribe an evil laugh.)

As it turns out, we can’t do anything we want with our characters. There are some rules of believability, and the people holding us to those rules, our readers, don’t want us to be mad scientists. (Yeah, I know. I was disappointed too. That was one of my main career goals.)

Here are some things I’ve learned not to do when creating characters.

Main characters are not…
  • Store-bought Cookies: Do not try to buy a package of Chips Ahoy, take the cookies out of the plastic, arrange them on a plate, and pretend you spend all morning baking me cookies. I will be angry, and besides, it won’t work. I can tell the difference. In the same way, don’t spend five minutes plunking down a character who seems to fit your plot, without thinking about his background, motivation, and personality. You readers can tell the difference.
  • Junk Drawers: On the other hand, don’t pass out random quirks, nicknames, or identifying features to your characters. They’ll probably end up with a mixed-up jumble of traits. You might think it’s endearing. Readers will think it’s confusing. Take yourself as an example: unique as you may be, there’s a method to your madness. Your quirks probably grow out of your personality, your weaknesses and strengths are most likely two sides of the same coin, and things that anger you most are related to your personal experiences. Don’t make your characters predictable, but do make them logical.
  • Paper Dolls: This relates to the tendency to dress up your characters in different costumes and then over-describe them. Do we need to know every detail of his face, or what brand, style, and color of dress she wore? Probably not. But even if we do, don’t describe all of that in a clunky way, or your character will feel as fake and 2-D as a paper doll. Please try not to have your character walk in front of a mirror or run her hand through her platinum blonde, slightly wavy hair and bat her blue-green eyes. Keep it natural.
Minor characters are not…
  • Vending Machine Items: Sometimes it’s easy to think that there’s a giant machine with buttons along the side that say “Waitress,” “Truck Driver,” “Butler,” “Brainless Henchman” and other stock characters. All you have to do as a writer is put in a few quarters, and out they’ll come. This is false. You don’t have to put in as much detail about your minor characters as you do with your main ones. That might be a little distracting, actually. But take a quick look around you. People are interesting, even the ones in the background that you might not know much about. Make your minor characters the same way.
  • Talking Stuffed Animals: Think of those cheap plush toys with a little “Press Me” sticker on their hands or stomachs. Besides being incredibly annoying, they are only capable of saying a few phrases about the same topic. In the same way, don’t have a minor character with a limited vocabulary and specific dialogue role. Some books have a funny guy whose only job is to stand around and crack jokes. Another common one is the moralizer – a pastor, pastor’s wife, or ultra-spiritual neighbor – who will occasionally step in with a word of encouragement or appropriate Bible verse, but who adds little else to the story.
Well, there you have it. I wish you could see the characters I’ve written who have fallen into these categories. They’re a strange mix of funny, pathetic, and scary, like those mutated toys that Sid creates in Toy Story. And none of us want to end up like him. So be nice to your characters. Treat them like they’re real people, and your readers will believe that they are.

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