Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Make Your Characters Real

Sometimes authors get hung up on character names. They can't begin to write until they have the *perfect* names for their characters. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. Just don't spend days or weeks naming the players in your book, then forget to make them people instead of clones of each other.

Characters come from different cultures, different up-bringings. Even characters who are closely related won't sound the same or move and act the same. Do you do everything exactly as your brother or sister? Do y'all hold the same beliefs?

Sure, you want your characters to look different and have varied occupations. You give them names that start with different sounds or letters, so readers won't get them confused. You give some characters *tags* that are unique and identifiable. But delve deeper into these people.

If some of your characters live in a culture different from yours, or work at a job you know nothing about, or run in a social circle unfamiliar to you, do some research. That might mean physical visits to a town or area of town. It might mean hours at your local historical library reading diaries and journals of people from that time period. Don't just figure you can "wing it." Not every character can -- or should -- reflect you.

Observe people. You see two men running up stairs in an emergency. One's a businessman; one's a fireman. Even if they're dressed the same and look the same, they're going to move differently, think differently, react differently. Consider their training, their physical conditioning, their goals, their fears, their values.

What is it that makes your protagonist likeable? It's not always his or her positive traits or acceptable attitude. Sometimes it's his/her flaw and the struggle to overcome. What makes your antagonist human? What makes your main character's best friend a real person and not just a mirror of the protagonist? How are the two cops different? Where is the conflict in the attitudes of the childhood friends? What did this character have happen to him as a young kid that colors his beliefs and decisions as an adult? What conflict is warring inside this character and how does it interfere with his/her interaction with another character?

No two people are the same. No two characters are the same. You are only one person, but you have to create many personalities. Not an easy job. You certainly don't want to clone yourself in character after character. I mean, you're fascinating, to be sure, but a whole town of one person, one attitude? Page after page of characters agreeing with each other? Twenty characters that, in the end, are indistinguishable?

If you're writing a manuscript about clones, that's one thing. Otherwise, make your characters people. People who stand out from each other. People whom your readers can identify with, feel like they know (or love or hate), people they will remember long after they close the book.

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