First, a couple of announcements. My e-publisher is having a summer sale, which includes Sorcery and Cecelia and a bunch of other things. It lasts until July 22nd.
Second, I’m hoping that at some time in the next month or thereabouts, the new, improved, much cleaner and more readable web site and blog will be going up, and there may be a bit of disruption around the switchover. The content won’t change, and the archives should still be there, but there are always bugs and glitches with this sort of thing. I’ll try to provide more specific notice once we have a date for everything to go live.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled writing post, which today is about characters.
You can find lots of different techniques and writers’ aids for doing characters, ranging from writing a character study to letters to ten-page-or-more worksheets that attempt to cover every aspect of your characters’ lives that might possibly be important to the story. They’re supposed to help writers write characters who are unique and believable and realistic, and like every other writing method, each of them works for some writers but not for others. What I haven’t seen anyone talk much about is why these things are necessary. Why does a writer need to think about all their characters (not just the protagonist) in so much depth?
It’s because 99.9% of those characters are not the writer.
Oh, all characters embody aspects of their author. They have to. My own head is the only one I really, truly know anything about the inside of, no matter how many people I’ve talked to or observed closely or studied in depth. But if you stop and think about it, the vast majority of characters in the vast majority of stories are significantly different from their authors. They have to be. The real world is, after all, populated by billions of people who are not the author; authors who are making even the smallest attempt to make their fiction realistic or believable have to populate their stories in a similar manner.
Among my real-life friends and acquaintances, none of them, not even my best friends or my sisters, are exactly like me. We aren’t the same size, shape, height, or age; we don’t share all the same background, life experiences, hair color, skill sets, or tastes; we haven’t the same ethnic origins or religious beliefs. Sometimes there’s a lot of overlap in one or more of those things, sometimes next to none. The high school boy who mows my lawn is different from me in practically every way, except for the fact that both of us want/wanted to earn some extra cash over our summer vacations.
Everyone deals constantly with people who are not exactly like them: customers, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, store clerks, relatives, friends, enemies. Translating this to books almost always takes considerable thought, which is what all the character study aids are trying to stimulate, but there’s usually more to it than they make it seem.
The two classic mistakes writers make are 1) making all the characters fundamentally alike, and 2) making all the characters consciously and completely different. The first one is common when writers are working on autopilot. They’re writing about a family – Mom, Dad, teenaged brother, preteen sister – and having assigned roles and genders, they slap different hair, eye color, height, and clothes sense on each of them and call it good. They don’t stop to consider that Mom and Dad aren’t exactly like each other, and certainly won’t share the same opinions as their children. The characters may be different ages and genders and have different jobs, but if you replaced all the names with A, B, C, and D, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was expressing which opinions, having which ideas, or even taking which actions, because all of them sound and act the same. They have superficial differences, but fundamentally they’re exactly alike.
The opposite extreme are the folks who seem to have a check-off list of characteristics they want to get into the story. They have an even number of characters, exactly half of whom are male and the other half female. None of the characters have overlapping backgrounds, ethnic origins, or ages (unless two of them are supposed to become romantically involved, in which case those two are usually relatively close in age). Everyone has a different hobby, whether it’s woodworking, basketball, playing an obscure musical instrument, or being a gourmet cook. (One wonders how the characters who like sports manage, since even if there is more than one person who is into sports, they’re never into the same sports, and even tennis needs two players.) Nobody has anything in common with anyone else in the story. It’s hard to see how these people can be anything other than the most distant of coworkers; they’re certainly not going to be believable as the close-knit team that works together smoothly to defeat the Horrible Menace.
Reality is always somewhere in the middle. People are not fundamentally exactly alike, but they’re seldom completely different from each other, either. In fiction, it’s up to the writer to manage both sides of this equation in service to the story, to decide what similarities and differences will be believable and appropriate, and to choose characters whose differences and similarities will contribute to, rather than distract from, the plot and subplots (or whose differences and similarities will generate interesting plots and subplots, if the characters come first for that particular writer).