Monday, November 16, 2009

Lesson One: Character

Welcome to our week long Online Writing Clinic!
I was delighted to choose “Character” as my topic. To my mind, character is the most important aspect of writing any book. Sure, plots matter, but if you ask most people to recap Gone with the Wind, they’ll wind up referencing the characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Recently, in an online a discussion group, one of the participants noted that she would read a certain series even if “nothing happened because I enjoy the characters so much.”
So how do we go about creating characters that engender such interest?

It’s easy: Make your characters distinctive.

Think of the folks who inhabited Gilligan’s Island: The Skipper, the Professor, Mary Ann, Gilligan, Ginger, and the Howells. We can easily conjure up all of them in our minds. Each person looked different, dressed differently, spoke differently, reacted differently to situations, caused different reactions from other people, and displayed different preferences. That mix of clashing and coinciding personalities provided the series with most of its humor, its situations, and its drama.

Let’s take each of those qualities in turn:

* Look Differently—Sure, we all have stereotypes in our heads. You don’t want to cast against type unless you can explain that disparity. For example, by her own reckoning Bella in Twilight isn’t beautiful or graceful, and these things don’t matter because something indefinable about her makes her scent irresistible to the vampires. (I think Edward says, “You are my own personal brand of heroin,” or something like that.) So, by working against one stereotype, but including another stereotype, Stephenie Meyer created an interesting and memorable heroine. (Not HEROIN!)
If you are going to rely solely on a stereotype, you run the risk of the reader tuning your character out. Stereotypes, while useful, are also predictable. So mix it up. Work against type. For example, in the movie Fargo, the policewoman vomits at the crime scene. Is it because she’s a woman and she’s grossed out? No, it’s because she’s pregnant and has morning sickness, a wholly unexpected juxtaposition.
Can a character be a stereotype and still be interesting? Yes, but the writer must consciously work for this to happen. For example, in an upcoming Kiki Lowenstein book, readers will meet Sharona, a young woman who is so attractive that the others nickname her “The Centerfold.” How do I make Sharona interesting? I contrast her with Kiki, who is slightly overweight. I also play up our natural antipathy to anyone who is “perfect.” When Sharona overhears someone calling her “The Centerfold,” she laughs. Since we might expect someone so lovely to be heavily invested in her looks—and since Sharona doesn’t take herself too seriously—the reader sees Sharona as a multi-dimensional character.

* Dress Differently—Show me a character in Levi jeans and a white tee shirt, and I’ll have one impression of him. Dress that man in an Armani suit, a bespoke shirt, and an Hermes tie, and I’ll have a wholly different one. But, if the same character wears both outfits, I’ll have yet ANOTHER impression of his personality. Do clothes make the man? I dunno, but I’m sure they do make the character!
Notice the impact that brand names had on my descriptions. Companies pay a lot of money to train us to call up certain images when we encounter their brands. A brand is actually a shorthand notation for an experience or an expectation. So I’m all for writers using brands to help define their characters. However, it sure can be tricky.
Let me explain: Recently I judged a contest for romance writers. Almost every author tried to throw in a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. One came up with a wholly unexpected brand, Fluevog. Okay, maybe I’m out of the loop. I’d never heard of Fluevog. I stopped reading to look them up. Checking up on the brand derailed my reading.
Not good.
There’s a scene in the movie Punchline where Tom Hanks helps Sally Field with her comedy routine. He explains how one reference is too obscure to be funny and with a slight change to make the reference more universally understood, he dramatically improves one of her jokes.
That’s the line we writers must always walk. Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik have become overused, thanks to Sex in the City and its ilk. But Fluevog might be too unusual for most readers. Remember: Anything that takes the reader out of the story is a situation devoutly to be avoided.

* Speak Differently—There’s so much we can do with this! I used to write speeches for the corporate executives of Diamond-Star Motors. To be successful at this, I had to learn to hear each man’s voice ringing in my head. One was Cuban, one was from Detroit, one was Canadian, and one was Japanese. Were they all different? Yes. Their vocabularies, their diction, their references, and their personalities all combined to make each man unique.
Writers can (and should) explore several levels of speech patterns.
Level One: Will your character use slang? Only speak with 3-syllable words? Throw in foreign phrases? Stutter? Use contractions? (Many non-native English speakers never use contractions.) Construct his sentences awkwardly? Toss in malapropisms? Use substandard English? Have an accent? Peter Abrahams told me that in one book, his character always spoke Latinate. That meant that the character’s vocabulary sprang from words with Latin origins. So, Peter’s character might suggest that problems have an “amicable resolution,” that the size of a tablecloth should be “calculated at its circumference,” and that before “matriculating” a person must “prepare” for the real world.
Level Two: Some researchers divide people into “Ask Assertive” and “Tell Assertive” speakers. “Ask Assertive” folks tend to make everything into a question. For example, they say, “Isn’t it a nice day?” Whereas “Tell Assertive” only talk in statements. By contrast, they would say, “It’s a nice day!”
Level Three: Visual people versus audio relaters versus “feelers.” These people all rely on different senses to communicate. So, the visual people say, “I see what you mean.” The audio people say, “I hear you.” And the “feelers” say, “I feel your pain.”
Here’s my litmus test: If dialogue among characters could be easily switched around from one person’s mouth to another’s, I haven’t made the dialogue distinctive.

* React Differently to Situations—Last night we watched House. How Dr. Gregory House reacts to a patient dying is distinctly different than how his oncologist friend Dr. James Wilson reacts which is in turn different than hospital administrator Dr. Lisa Cuddy reacts. House is more fascinated by the process, by the disease, and by the puzzle. Dr. Wilson is a compassionate man who cares deeply about his patients, and the suffering they are enduring. Dr. Cuddy sees the potential liability, the impact on the hospital and her role as administrator.
You can tell me that your character is one sort of person or another, but “seeing” his/her reaction to situations allows the reader to experience the character more viscerally. For example, when we see Scarlett react to Rhett’s eavesdropping by throwing a vase at him, we learn volumes about her personality.
Conversely, we also need to see other people react to our characters. Psychologists often discuss the disparity between our perception of ourselves and the way other see us. The wider the gap, the more problematic. Obviously, if I see myself as jovial and others see me as hysterical, or if I see myself as concerned and others see me as intrusive, conflicts will arise.

* Displaying Different Preferences—If I love the opera and my spouse loves country western music, or if I hate big cities and my partner wants to live in Manhattan, we have differing preferences.
Recently, an erudite friend shocked me by admitting that she doesn’t have a passport, and she never wants to travel out of the country. This was totally at odds with other aspects of her personality. She’s an early adopter, a curious and gregarious young woman. Someday I hope to follow up on our conversation and discover why she feels the way she does.
Different preferences set people apart. As in the case with my friend, when a preference seems at odds with other aspects of a personality, we are reminded that none of us is simplistic. We are all multi-faceted, complex individuals. We are different and distinct from one another.

And there's more...

Of course, there’s more to developing a distinctive character. I haven’t even touched upon other aspects that I enjoy playing with in my god-like role of author, such as personal habits, world view, backstory, education, and flaws. But I think I’ve probably gone on long enough.
Any questions?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great tips, Joanna. I'm tweeting this one.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Elizabeth, thanks so much. This post was "put up" late last night--and disappeared sometime this morning. As you can see, I've put it up again, but I have NO idea how it disappeared or why.

Camille Minichino said...

It's a mystery. But I'm glad it's back, Joanna.

This is so much more useful than the usual "guidance" where an instructor will tell you to make your character different, but marketable! You've given concrete examples and even some people to look at.

No wonder "Got Kiki?" is so memorable.

Another trick I've used is to create a spectrum of character traits. One might be BRAVERY. On one end of the spectrum is COURAGEOUS and the other end is COWARDLY. At the beginning of the book, the protag may be bordering on very fearful and cowardly but at the end (due to the plot, of course) she shows great courage. (hmmm ... lions anyone?). Or he might be SHY at the beginning and OUTGOING at the end; FEARFUL at the beginning, but the story points force her to face the fears and at the end has overcome them and is a RISK TAKER.

I have a chart with the traits listed in a column and a "scale" along which the character can move from one end to the other. If anyone would like a copy, let me know at and I'll send it along.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Great lesson, Joanna! Even for those of us who've been writing for a long time, getting this reminder, and your perspective and detail, is definitely helpful. Loved Camille's comment, too! Some of the fun is also the character arc--how your character changes in the story and in the series, thanks to events and relationships with other people.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

You know, Camille's comment is spot on. I once took a class in personal styles. They taught us that every strength could be overused and turned into a weakness. So if you use Camille's chart, you can extrapolate the extremes and use those aspects to create tension.

Kait said...

Great lesson Joanna, thank you for sharing with us.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Kim, you are very welcome! I love working on my characters. I hope some of these tips will be useful to others, too.

Abbi Glines said...

Priceless information. Thank you!

Anonymous said...


Great stuff. I love all the distinctions you talk about. Little things can make such a big difference.