Monday, February 13, 2006

Cloned Characters - UPDATED

PICTURE AT BOTTOM MAY OFFEND SOME ANIMAL LOVERS...OR PEOPLE WHO LIKE BABIES.

One of the criticisms often made about writing is that the characters all sound the same.

I once got the remark on an excerpt of my work that my characters “all run and jump the same way.”

That was a remark I really had to consider. And it’s a criticism that I have something of an issue with, particularly in the mystery genre.

For me, specifically, the story in question involved a team of police officers. Young officers. All in good health. Laying off the donuts.

Short of giving one a bad leg or some truly bizarre characteristic, they were obviously going to “run and jump” similarly.

Although in that particular excerpt, they neither ran nor jumped.

But they did react. And I could look at the main characters sharing a scene and see that some of their reactions were pretty similar.

However, that doesn’t surprise me either. The truth is, if you present a dozen people with similar careers and experiences with the same situation, there’s a good chance more than a few of them will react the same way.

In this case, it was the body of a child. This is not when the cops start with the wisecracks. This is when everyone gets solemn and serious. And angry.

I felt that the criticism was going a bit too far, in that particular case, considering it was a judgment on a few thousand words and hardly the whole manuscript. But the comment isn’t wholly without merit.

There are definitely times when characters appear to be nothing more than replicas. One of the things you have to do is strive to give each character their own voice, which will be defined by a combination of things. The way they speak, the way they react, what they do when nobody’s looking.

In essence, you give them life.

It is easy to criticize writers by saying that their characters all sound the same, but the reality is that if you walk down the street where I live, most people do sound the same. We use the same slang and lazy speech. We talk in cumulative conversations that have been accruing since the snowstorm of 1998. The passing chatter on the street isn’t a conversation in itself – it is simply picking up where you left off last time you were in the store, or ran into them on the way to the post office.

In my writing, I’ve had to really look at what defines a character to me on the page, and it isn’t as easy as it sounds. One of the characters in a manuscript ended up becoming a major character in the series, and it wasn’t even planned.

He just had this great attitude, and he was so much fun to write. And he demanded more than I’d planned to give him. He lives for me.

A few others, however, fall short of the mark.

As I’m editing, now I’ll be looking for what it is that makes this character seem flat, or not quite as believable. In truth, it’s this one pesky manuscript that I haven’t touched in over a year that’s the problem.

Thank God for publishing contracts so that I don’t have to look at my one stand-alone for some time to come!

But I find myself wondering what tips and strategies you use to give your characters dimension. And what makes a difference to you as a reader, what makes you believe in one as opposed to another.

I’d welcome your thoughts.



3 LADIES IN A HOT TUB - an old joke, but it seemed appropriate for today's post and I still expect laughter, dammit!

THREE WOMEN -- ONE GERMAN, ONE JAPANESE AND A HILLBILLY WERE SITTING NAKED IN A SAUNA. SUDDENLY THERE WAS A BEEPING SOUND. THE GERMAN PRESSED HER FOREARM AND THE BEEPING STOPPED THE OTHERS LOOKED AT HER QUESTIONINGLY.

"THAT WAS MY PAGER," SHE SAID I HAVE A MICROCHIP UNDER THE SKIN OF MY ARM."

A FEW MINUTES LATER, A PHONE RANG. THE JAPANESE WOMAN LIFTED HER PALM TO HER EAR. WHEN SHE FINISHED, SHE EXPLAINED, "THAT WAS MY MOBILE PHONE. I HAVE A MICROCHIP IN MY HAND."

THE HILLBILLY WOMAN FELT DECIDEDLY LOW TECH. NOT TO BE OUTDONE, SHE DECIDED SHE HAD TO DO SOMETHING JUST AS IMPRESSIVE. SHE STEPPED OUT OF THE SAUNA AND WENT TO THE BATHROOM. SHE RETURNED WITH A PIECE Of TOILET PAPER HANGING FROM HER BEHIND. THE OTHERS RAISED THEIR EYEBROWS AND STARED AT HER.

THE HILLBILLY WOMAN FINALLY SAID, "WELL, WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT, I'M GETTIN' A FAX."

11 comments:

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Beat ya' to it girlfriend! I did that one back at the beginning of December:

http://bonniescalhoun.blogspot.com/2005/12/sauna-ladies.html

But as for the characters...my dad was a cop when I was growing up, so I got to see a lot of cop interaction. One day in our neighborhood, a migrant worker ran down the street to our house to get my dad because he thought the woman in the first floor apartment of his building was dead.

When my dad asked him why he thought this, he said because he had looked in her window as he passed by in the morning and she was laying on the bed naked and she was still there when he came home.

Naturally I just had to go down there too...not one to miss the action...Dad actually sent me in first (in case she was alive) She was stiff as a board!!!

I say all that to say...my Dad was cool as a cucumber as he called for the meat wagon and backup. The first two cops there...one was a rookie. He took one look at her and hurled his guts over the porch railing. The other one made a snide remark about the perils of being a hooker (which my father promptly chastised him for saying in front of me)

so there were three different reactions to the same scene.

How do I flesh out characters? I pick out a friend who acts like the cahracter I want and I use their mannerisms, attitudes and traits.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I'm with Bonnie. Pick out real people, model the characters after them. People have certain facial expressions, turns of speech, ways they'll react. Like when you say to yourself, 'I so know what John or Mary will do when then hear about this!'

If you're short on real life people, check out the characteres in really good movies. The movies where everybody doesn't look like a hollywood cutout, see what it is the actors do that differentiate their characters. I watched Twelve Angry Men again tonight and it really struck me how different each of those jurors were, how much each actor did with a role that could easily have become 12 guys in a room reading lines.

I'm watching a movie now. The one character has a little whistle in his voice when he speaks. It's subtle, barely noticed. Just every once in a while and not what I expect from the character, who is well-dressed and upscale.

Stuart MacBride said...

I find drinking lots of Gin helps.

JamesO said...

That 'running and jumping' remark sounds like the usual useless waffle you get in so much so called editorial criticism these days. Whoever has read that piece thinks that all the characters are the same, but can't be bothered to look out specific instances in the writing to explain why (or more likely doesn't have the time). So they say, flippantly, 'they all run and jump the same way.' And what if they were all members of the same police decathlon team?

My characters often come across as samey, especially in their dialogue in the first draft. The trick is to try to know your characters well and always be true to them. And work the conflicts as best you can - that's where differences in character show up most.

Gin is, however, the best answer. Lots of gin, mixed with a small amount of vermouth and garnished with a twist of lemon and an olive. Martinis, mmmmm.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm with Stuart!

No, seriously, to some degree I pick real people, but James has a point about the decathlon team.

The thing is, I actually know that not everyone in the scene came off the same. But they'd made it really clear that they didn't like the writing because they said it was "lazy" and so I think they just pulled random "insults" out.

Still, this is a worthy point of discussion, and within writing there are multitudes of style preferences.

And in getting the tips of others, it is very handy that gin came up!!!

Bernita said...

What they said, quirks from real people.
I have to work on the speech patterns particularly.
Important if there's a fair amount of dialogue and you don't want to "he said, she said" every line.
At the same time these critics slam the similarities, they claim one must excise every detail that does not advance the plot - so one must be selective about those idiosyncrisies one does choose.

David Terrenoire said...

Part of the reason that cops run and jump in similar ways is from training. In the military, when things get hairy, yes, everyone reacts internally in a different way but from the outside everyone is doing the same thing - getting down, determining where the fire is coming from and returning fire as quickly as possible. Training.

As for different characters, maybe it comes from my days as an actor, but I literally hear their voices in my head, and they talk the way they talk. I really don't have to think about it. I was blessed with a good ear, I guess.

Sometimes I'll write the same scene from the various characters' POVs, just to keep myself honest. I learned from Elmore Leonard that if two people are in conversation, you have two very different agendas, and it's your responsibility to be true to that. On top of that, you have to understand that their agendas are very different from your agenda, which is to move the story forward. My characters often don't give a damn what I want.

Bastards.

Erik Ivan James said...

David's point about "training" is true for certain types of characters i.e. cops, firefighters, etc.

For others, I always use real people as a starting point for character development.

Your jokes are dangerous reading in the early morning when one hasn't yet been to the potty. But, what is better than starting the day with a good laugh.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Erik, starting the day with good s...ahem.

Never mind.

David, those are excellent points. Since evilkev is former military and a trained firefighter, why didn't I think of that?

Oddly enough, people usually love my dialogue, but I try to write it as people actually talk. That's all. I wish I had a good ear, but man you've given some good tips!

And Bernita, excellent point about trimming out the details that don't advance the plot. That is really, truly, an essential thing for us to factor into the balance.

Gabriele C. said...

I have a problem with dialogue, too. Since I write historical fiction, I can't have people talking like today, it sounds wrong to me (yes, Simon Scarrow does it to good effect most of the time, but sometimes he throws me with too modern dialogue). So, because they talk more formal most of the time, I thought they sound all alike, but so far, readers haven't complained.

Editors may, though.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Interesting Gabriele - we had a local author speak on characters and she writes historical - I asked her about the dialogue and she said she doesn't worry as much about it being "time sensitive" as she does about it sounding real.

Seemed to not get too fussy about it, which surprised me.