HWSWAnswers: Characters

And we’re back with more answers to questions you asked earlier in the week. There’ll be more on Monday. Today, it’s all about character.

Nicole asked:
How do you prevent your characters or plot from always being the same thing while on the surface level they aren’t? There are a few authors I’ve read where it’s always the same story in the end – dif plot, but it just feels the same.

Bob:
Honestly, some of mine tend to be the same in many areas. But when I dig into their backstory, I unearth the differences. For me a lot of the differences come in the supporting characters. I’m really having fun with Phoebe, a new character in the Shane book. Also, I change up setting, which is place and time. My new Green Beret series set in the late 70s in New York City lends a uniqueness to them. No computers. No cell phones. Write what you know. Write what you want to know. Write you’re passionate about.

Jenny:
That’s one of those fine line things. The reason people come back to read your second book is because they liked the first one, which is why people get so annoyed with me when there isn’t a dog in the next book. Or it’s not as funny as the last one. But if it’s exactly the same, they say, “Oh, you know, Crusie, another one with a dog.” So I think what you look at is the things that you are always drawn to–angry heroines build a community, say–the things that will snap you back to the center of every story no matter how hard you try to ditch them, and then watch the things you do because they’re fun or knee-jerk decisions for you–dogs, food, banter, whatever.

The things you can’t get away from are the things that make you the storyteller you are. The things you lean on because you’re lazy, those you can change.

Bob:
Good point. Readers want the same, but different. However, my thriller readers won’t necessarily like my Area 51 books. And those readers might not like my Time Patrol books.

Jenny:
And a lot my readers are annoyed because I (a) switched from category to single title, (b) collaborated, (c) stopped writing romance for women’s fiction, (d) didn’t put a dog in it. Change UPSETS people; doing the same thing BORES people, so writers drink.

Bob:
I picked a bad month to stop sniffing glue

Jenny:
In the end, you can only write the story that’s taking up all the real estate in your head; if it’s the same damn thing you can try to shift characters and plot devices, but essentially you are the storyteller you were born to be and those are the stories you have. I think writers who deliberately try to write something radically different from what they usually write are kneecapping the muse; that is, they’re not writing a story that’s pressing them, they’re intellectually trying to write a different kind of story, regardless of what instinct is telling them.

It’s hard enough to write this stuff. I switch around a lot because I have the attention span of a dog (SQUIRREL!), but it would be better for my career if I didn’t. Even so, I’m probably always going to have a heroine with a smart mouth who’s really pissed about something because that’s where my stories come from. I can play a little bit with supporting characters, settings, plot aspects, but I’m always going to start with her.

Bob:
My subjects are all over the place as well as genre, if that counts.

Jenny:
That’s true. But you’ve always got the focused hero who’s kinda grim, even when she’s female.

Bob Mayer:
Except my elf book.

Jenny:
You wrote an elf book?

Bob:
Not yet. It’s going to be an elf in a horror story.

Jenny:
Okay. Horror elf. But he’ll still be a grim bastard with a Glock. We are what we write.

No, We write what we are.

Not that I’m angry.

Bob:
I’m a happy go lucky guy. Seriously. Or I’ll shoot you.

Jenny:
Fifteen years, Bob, that’s how long I’ve known you. You have never been happy-go-lucky.
It’s part of your charm.

Nicole asked:
How do you prevent a side character from being very one dimensional and trope based? Protags somewhat as well, but more space to play there. And villains- important, likely as much page time as side characters or less. How to make them unique without more page space? Generally, but also what do you do when you realize you’ve written a character that falls into this trap?

Bob:
Being honest, re-reading some of my early books I had some trope characters. But now, I make characters as interesting as possible. I’ll spend an entire 20 mile bike ride ruminating on a character, leaning forward and recording notes about them. I want each one to have something that makes them distinct. I love the series Derry Girls. Every single character in that show is unique, from the girls to the nuns, to every person they run ito. I love watching Orla, who doesn’t say much but is always doing weird stuff in the background that’s hilarious. I also want to know their secrets. One at least. i just wrote a scene with Xavier who’s talking about running off with Evie Keyes at the end of Agnes and he’s explaining what happened and he drops some secrets on Shane. Except, Shane has to wonder if he’s telling the truth or was doing an interrogation trick of pretending to open to get Shane to open up.

Jenny:
There are two kinds of characters (actually there are a lot of kinds of characters, but for the purposes of this discussion, two): flat and round, also static and dynamic. If all of your characters are round (multi-dimensional) and dynamic (arcing and changing), your story is going to look like the snake scene in Raiders; the ground is moving and the reader can’t tell what’s going on. So you want your major characterrs to be dynamic/round, and your supporting characters to be static/flat. How can you tell which is which? The major characters are the ones that bear the major impact of the plot. What happens in the story hurts them the most, changes them (dynamic) in all the aspects of their live (round). Round characters are multi-dimensional, filling multiple roles in their lives and other people lives. They work, they have families and friends, they have homes and habits, and so on. Their lives are not just their love affairs or their careers, they’re built in layers in all the aspects of their lives that have an impact on them. And then the plot happens and they change, become dynamic figures, and that change shifts the other major characters, like meshed gears in a machine.

The pizza guy, that annoying person at work who just passes by every now and then, the ex who comes into view once or twice, those people don’t change and only connect to the story in one way, in what is essentially the background. They can stay flat.

Bob brought up an interesting way to look at flat characters: they’re characters you don’t wonder about when you read.

Bob:
Unless you’re Stephen King and you spend an entire chapter introducing a character only to kill them at the end. But yeah– if they aren’t recurring, don’t confuse the reader.

Jenny:
If you read a character and think, “I’d like to know more about him,” that’s probably somebody who needs to be a round character. But you read and think, “I really don’t need to know any more about this guy,” it’s a flat character.

CarolC asked:
I think you’ve talked a bit about this before, but I would like to hear more about how to make a character well rounded instead of one dimensional. Examples of both would be helpful.

Jenny:
If a character has only one interest in life (this guy is really hot and he’s all I can think about!) and never changes, that character is one-dimensional. A character who is well-rounded (dynamic, multi-dimensional) has many aspects that inform that character–work, hobbies/play, family, friends, romances, pets, neighbors, life maintenance (car tune-ups, plumbing problems, grocery-shopping), a spectrum of things big and small, all of which provide a different insight into the character. A well-rounded character has many sides, all of which combine to make a whole.

The key is that each side provide a different view into the character. And the differing views combine to make a whole, an integrated personality with a variety of aspects. Think about your own life, about all the roles you play, the things you deal with during the day. You are not your career, you are not your family or your relationships, but those things shape and inform who you are. In Agnes and the Hitman, Agnes was shaped by her past with her family, by her present relationships with Lisa Livia, Joey, Brenda, and her fiancé, by her job trying to get the wedding together and trying to write her column, by her love for the house and all that it means; then Shane climbs through her window and shifts her perspective, and her new relationship with him shifts all her other relationships, what she knows about the wedding she preparing, how she feels about her house . . . Agnes is multi-dimensional not only because she’s spinning a lot of plates, but because the plate-spinning is changing her. Shane is defined by his job and the way he feels about it, but also by his relationship with Joey, his dealings with his past that he confronts now with Joey, Lisa Livia, and Brenda; and above all by his relationships with Carpenter and Agnes. All of those things arc during the book, and so does Shane’s character.

Bob:
Characters aren’t at Maslow’s highest level of self-awareness. The hardest part is writing about the parts of them they aren’t aware of. The weird things they do that don’t make sense to others, but are part of their psyche. One thing I really like is characters who have a part of them that goes against what they appear to be. Will Kane, my latest protagonist, has Aspergers. He’s very, very capable of certain things, like killing. But he’s inept with people. Especially socially. So he has a tendency to take something one person says, file it away, and then say it later on. And sometimes it’s inappropriate in that new situation but he’s giving it his best shot. One people might know is Swearingen in Deadwood. He was written as the series antagonist, but was done so well by Ian McShane as opposed to Bullock’s one dimensional protagonist (anger) that people really liked him so in season two, they became co-protagonists. What made Swearingen intriguing as a really bad guy was the issue of why people were so loyal to him. His top whore, Trikie, the bartenned Doherty, and others. It wasn’t out of fear. It was out of a sort of love.

Jenny:
One of the best ways to show the complexity of a character is through their relationships. The way they feel about other people, treat other people, the way other people regard them. That’s a huge way to develop character. Show what they think, what they say, what they do, but be sure to echo or contrast that with what other people think or say about them, how they interact.

KM asked:
What are concrete strategies for getting more emotion onto the page? I’d say 80% of my edits are always about showing more emotion. Thanks!

Jenny:
Emotion lives in the body. We state that we feel scared or angry, but when we feel it, we feel it physically. So I think the key to writing emotion is writing bodies in a way the reader can connect with. I just read a book where anxiety clawed at the neck of the character. I’ve never felt any emotion claw at my neck; that was just bad writing, but I’ve felt my blood/body grow cold, I’ve felt my stomach clench, I’ve felt my knees go weak with shock. You want to avoid cliches, but you are trying for universal physical reactions to events/emotions, because it’s the reader’s “oh my god I’ve felt like that” that communicates the emotions.

Bob:
Did I miss a ?

Jenny:
It’s up there but here it is again:

KM asked:
What are concrete strategies for getting more emotion onto the page? I’d say 80% of my edits are always about showing more emotion. Thanks!

Bob:
Yep. missed it. Was talking to an alien.

Jenny:
You’re usually not this chatty.
Tell it I said hi.

After instinctive physical reactions that demonstrate emotions, there are coping actions: clenched jaws, faster breathing, shifting bodies away, eyes looking away or narrowing, tears, that kind of thing. They’re not something people do on purpose, they’re what their bodies do to protect themselves or show aggression or ask for help. That is, you may not cry on purpose after someone insults you, but your body may do that anyway and then you fight the tears and your enemy sees it as a weakness and your friends see it as a signal you need help.

Bob:
The key word is SHOWING. Not telling. It’s extremely hard. What do people do? Halle Berry won an Oscar to that moment at the end of Monster’s Ball. The realization that she expresses without any dialogue. How do you show that? I focus a lot on the difference between a novel and a film. Each has its advantages. As a novelist, I don’t have Halle Berry on screen. But I do have words. You can show with a couple of words. I just had Carpenter who usually is very calm, reach out and grab the back of a chair when he learns something that shocks him. I don’t say “He was shocked to learn that”. Well, okay, sometimes I do because show don’t tell is really, really hard.

Jenny:
Unless the emotion is overwhelming, these physical reactions are only briefly on the page although they can continue for character throughout. In other words, if shocking news makes your character’s stomach clench, you don’t have to keep mentioning that, but at the end of the scene she may throw up. What you don’t want to do, as Bob says, is write the emotion at length, you want to show the physical action of the emotion so the reader experiences that.

Show don’t tell.

As Bob said.

Bob:
A big thing I see in mss’s is they beat you to death with emotion. You only have to say something once. Trust that your reader got it the first time. Too many characters are on the very edge of heart attacks in mss’s I’ve seen.

Jenny:
Yep. I’ve seen it in romance novels in the first meet scenes. She thinks he’s awesome, she looks at his jeans and feels a flush, he says something and her head swims, yadda, yadda, she’s having a damn seizure and he doesn’t notice,

Meanwhile the reader, who just knows him as a great pair of jeans and a good-looking face, starts to skim because it’s all yadda yadda to her at the point.

Bob:
Remember– your character can’t be ramped up emotionally all the time.

Jenny:
Yes. Exactly. If she’s that overwhelmed just looking at him, where are you going to go from there? Unless he’s Thor. I could see that with Thor. But otherwise, he’s an attractive guy, get over it and tell your story.
Also being emotionally swept away by somebody’s looks is fairly shallow. Wait until he saves a puppy, then get overwhelmed.

Bob:
Or shoots a cat!

Jenny:
If he shoots a cat, he’s not the hero. (Didn’t we already talk about that?)

Bob:
I watched Captain Marvel the other night. Much, much better than WW84.

Jenny:
Yes, it was.
(Waits for next post.)
Were you going somewhere with that Cpt. Marvel thing or was that just a thought?

Bob:
You mentioned Thor.

Jenny:
Equal time for superheroes. Absolutely.

MJ asked:
How do you balance including diverse characters with the “own voices” movement?

I don’t do protagonists of color because that’s an experience I can’t begin to get right. I try to leave the descriptions of my main characters really loose so people can project their own assumptions including race most of the time, but the default character race if none is stipulated is white, so that doesn’t help much. I think it’s a bad idea to say that only writers of color can only write characters of color–see Ben Aaronovitch and Mhairi McFarlane–but I think it’s a bad idea for me to try. Making supporting characters more diverse is easier, but I’m fairly sure I’m still not getting it right. The problem is that characters of color are more than their color; they’re the product of lives lived in a society that has treated them differently and thus shaped their personalities because of the color of their skin, lived in communities I’ve never been a part of and therefore can’t understand at anything but a superficial level. I don’t know anything about those experiences at a level deep enough to write true characters. I collaborated with Bob because I’m not good at writing men on a deeper level and I wanted to learn more, but I don’t see me calling Shirley Hailstock and saying, “I want to collaborate with you to understand the black experience.” Shirley’s pretty easy-going, but I think she’d draw the line there. You know what I’m good at? Angry white women over thirty.

Bob:
Dangerous question, but I’ll be honest. I write all sorts of characters from all types of background. To say someone must have that background or be of that group to write fiction about such characters is really limiting. I know in YA books go through a certain type of reader, the name escapes me right now, to make sure the story accurately reflects and doesn’t offend, but even that bothers me a little bit. I feel like readers should be the determining factor. My protagonists all have a semblance of my background and ethnicity. I don’t think I could write one who didn’t. I wouldn’t even attempt to write a protag person of color. But i have written female protagonists. So is that violating a rule? I don’t know. Some readers have told me that my depiction of aliens are off, by my experience on the mothership is mine to share.

Jenny:
Do not ask Bob about his experiences on the mother ship.

This is a dangerous question because it’s so easy to get in trouble answering it honestly.

And now that we’re facing danger, it’s time to take a break. We’ll be back with more answers on Monday.
Thanks for asking! (If you have more questions, please put them in the comments.)

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19 thoughts on “HWSWAnswers: Characters

  1. This has been gold. I’m struggling with secondary/side characters at the moment – of necessity I have seven of them trucking around with the main characters. Most of them, while they have a backstory and a life (I wrote short stories for each of them, trying to get myself in their heads) there’s not much that appears on the page because it moves things away from my main story. How do you know when you’ve got the balance of that right? There’s two in particular that I keep trying to give a little more story to, but every time I try it drags things away from the main action.

    +2
  2. One of the things I think is interesting about writing emotion (and I agree you can’t do too much) is that sometimes you can take something that’s kind of cliche and use the specifics of the character to make it more engaging (or at least less lazy seeming). In one fanfic I wrote my heroine was a nurse (which was already established from the series) and I described her heart as racing/thudding yadda, yaddda, and then I had her think “wait, is this a heart attack or a crush?” And she calms herself down by visualizing to herself the various chambers of her heart and reminding herself that she is in control of her life, not some dumb organ that doesn’t have a mind of its own. Maybe an engineer would think in terms of bridges or structures, an artist in colors and perspectives, etc.

    It’s not a trick to overuse or lean too heavily on, but when I feel like I really need some basic, boring emotion description (dry throat if you’re nervous, clenched fists for anger, etc) I try and ask myself – ‘how can I complicate this or at least describe it in a way that feels unique to the character?’

    +6
  3. The biggest thing I’m getting right now is that Bob teaches by mining examples from pop culture and Jenny teaches by examples from daily experiences mined for emotions.

    Thank you, both.

    +6
  4. I am not a writer but I do like reading your HWSW posts. It gives me, as a reader, a better appreciation and understanding of why something I am reading appeals to me and why it doesn’t.

    And, I have to admit, I am extremely curious about Bob’s visit to the Mother ship. lol

    +16
  5. Why is it I can read dozens of books and blogs about well-rounded characters and I’m still confused, but you write two paragraphs and I know exactly what you’re talking about? Achieving it is something else, but now at least I understand what I’m trying to accomplish. Thank you so, so much!!

    And quite aside from what I’m learning, reading Bob and Jenny’s conversations cracks me up. What a great start to my day.

    +8
  6. I think one of the things about writing characters with different backgrounds to you, is to ask yourself, Could I hurt people in real life by getting this portrayal wrong? Personally, I’m probably not great at writing straight white men, but straight white men are not lacking for representation in fiction, or positions of power in real life. I’m not perpetuating damaging myths if I get something wrong.

    With a character who’s from a part of a group that doesn’t get very much (good) representation in fiction, or many positions of power in real life, that’s where putting in the work to get it right starts to matter more. Also, continuing to plug Writing With Color (https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/), which is a great resource for writers trying to figure out how to write a character with a different racial or cultural background than their own. Script LGBT (https://scriptlgbt.tumblr.com/) is a similar blog for writing characters with different gender identities or sexual orientations than your own.

    One of the things Writing With Color emphasizes is that it’s ok to take your time and start small. Becoming a better writer is a lifelong project.

    +2
  7. Also, love the advice about emotion being stored in the body. I had a playwriting professor who said the same thing.

    +6
  8. I can’t write fiction, but I love reading these posts. Thank you both, for the craft lessons and the banter.

    +3
  9. Thank you both!

    I had hesitated to ask the dangerous question, but I knew you and the Argh people would respond thoughtfully.

    +1
  10. I keep thinking of that cliche, write what you know. In other words, write about yourself and what you yourself have experienced. Which is all fine and well but after a certain point, you better be prepared to try to write about someone or something you don’t know as well as you know yourself. Otherwise your books will only have one character: you, living your life. Which kind of limits the scope of your imagination. Certainly, I can see a superficial appeal to the argument for having only POCs write POC characters, and having only whites write white characters, and having men write about males and females write about females, people of LGBTQIA orientation write about LGBTQIA characters, and so on. But that gets impractical and impossible really fast. I would guess the people who get their books closest to reality when writing a character different from themselves are the people who are respectful of, and sensitive to, others, and expose themselves frequently to other cultures and viewpoints, and ask the hard questions, and do the heavy research, and recognize they’ll probably get it at least a little wrong no matter what, and are not afraid to admit it, or apologize, if they do. Bottom line though, there is no easy one-size-fits-all approach to this problem. It’s easy to be paralyzed for fear of getting it wrong. But does this mean we shouldn’t at least try? Try to get it right? Try to improve? Try to get to know and understand others? I think we’ll get something out of the experience personally, even if it doesn’t result in the perfect book. But, uggghh, it’s a hard issue. And maybe I’m just talking out my hat..

    1. I think that’s too narrow a definition of write what you know.

      I’ve never stalked anybody (so far) but I know frustration and rage in relationships, so I think I wrote a pretty good stalker.
      I’ve never been an actuary, but I know how much I want to quantify everything, and what a bad idea that is, so I’ve studied (briefly) chaos theory.
      I’ve never been haunted by a ghost, but I’ve been haunted by memories, so I extrapolated from that.

      Maybe better is “write the emotion you understand, write the character you can find a way into, write what you know to be true about the universe,”

      1. Yes, I completely agree. Maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough originally but I was trying to say it’s a maxim that CAN be, but should NOT be, interpreted too narrowly. If it was, we wouldn’t have any science fiction novels with aliens or fantasy novels with elves, for example.

        I was also trying to link up the argument that “write what you know” should NOT be interpreted too narrowly with the argument that it might be ok (under certain circumstances) for a straight white woman to write, for example, a gay black male character. But maybe I was trying to link up two arguments that shouldn’t be linked.

        Ultimately, however, I am struggling with the same question that you and others were addressing which is: is it ok to create a POC, or a marginalized character, if you are not yourself a POC, or marginalized person? It’s not an easy question and sometimes I feel we (or at least me) are paralyzed by the fear we might get it wrong (and in so doing hurt or offend others). But does this mean we shouldn’t even try? Especially if we first arm ourselves with the appropriate cultural knowledge, cultural research, cultural exposure and experience? Still struggling… Anyway, thanks for providing a safe space to explore the question.

  11. Change UPSETS people; doing the same thing BORES people, so writers drink.

    Guilty! as a reader, not a drinker that is.

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