Friday, October 7, 2011

Characters Must Not Always Be What They Seem

Before we get started, please watch the video above. I promise you won't regret it. You only have to watch about half to get my point.

It's not necessarily the best representation of what I want to talk about today, but it does illustrate quite well how pleasant it can be to be surprised. Never before (well okay, maybe Susan Boyle) have I seen a singer whose lungs, tone, passion, and presence so vastly defied his appearance and the first impression I'm willing to admit I judged him on.

People are like this. People are funny looking, irritating, mean, judgmental. They have all kind of flaws. Many of them aren't worth knowing, but most of them are, flawed as they may be.

We must make our characters equally as many-faceted.

I struggle with this myself, because I have a rather large cast in my novel, and there is very little space to give deep characterization to all the people in my story, but you'd be surprised how little can go a long way.

Dialog is a great tool for this. A tiny turn of phrase. Evidence that a character would be willing to interrupt a certain character, when they would never interrupt most others. Telling the truth. Lying.

In fact, I think that interaction between characters is the most important key to all of this. Everyone behaves differently, even if only slightly, depending on who is in the room. We worry what people think of us (or our confidence raises us above that), but we also think differently of everyone we worry will be judging us.

Put your characters in situations where what they think and feel about each other must be revealed, and hopefully one (or more) of them will end up doing something that surprises you, and will therefore surprise your reader.

And remember, in a book, unlike on TV, it doesn't always have to be a pleasant surprise. It just has to be compelling, and believable.

How do you keep your characters from falling flat? From being thin and predictable? Do you write secrets and surprises into them ahead of time, or do you allow them to be revealed to you along the journey?


  1. I have been doing an online collaboration on Blogger with another writer for six freaking months now. Our characters are interacting every single day. We are learning so much about them, and adding new characters and new dimensions all the time. It's been extremely good for her, as she's writing a series, to dig deeper into them and bring up more facets of their personalities. And since I'm just trying to keep myself together and please The Man, it's keeping me sane and feeling creative even though I'm not doing much "real" writing.

    But what we marvel at is exactly what you are talking about: the different ways the characters express themselves when different people are in the room. They will say things to one person that they would never say to another. And when they are all together for dinner or something, certain characters go silent and others just start antagonizing each other, even though they really like each other.

    But when they get into a battle situation, they all have each other's backs. It's awesome. We have bullets, arrows, magic and feathers all over the place. (some of my characters transform into huge birds of prey when they're ticked off.)

    But, that's how I'm keeping it real now.

  2. oh wow! great voice!
    i'm always worried about the flatness of my characters! eeks!

  3. Oh great, get me crying, will you? That video was like a perfect "Rocky" - humble beginnings, sincere guy, rising to the challenge, triumph, and victory walk with his mom. Can't beat it.

    And I think the judge was right about how the guy used how he looks - not in any misleading way, but just by going as exactly who he is and not dressing up slick and professional, he knew he'd make a greater impression.

    And what you said about interaction between characters reminds me of something Bruce Lee wrote, that "To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person."

  4. Great post, Matt. I think the video was a perfect way to illustrate your point. :)

  5. I love this post and the video because it emphasizes the importance of not writing stereotypical characters. I think I need a sign above my desk now- Make the Characters Surprise You.

  6. Matt, you rock. You're your own X-Factor.

    I will spare you my rant on how hokey this reality TV trope is getting (but I now really want to see the obverse of all this: some amazing-looking human, dressed to the nines, who can't sing a lick.)

    You hit the nail on the head about how differently characters should behave around other characters. That's a sweet thing to remember. And dialogue is a great way to do it

  7. Great post, Matt. That video is new to me. I haven't watched the show once. Thanks, I enjoyed it. And you're right. That video is a perfect way to show, not tell, how to flip the script on the viewer/reader when it comes to characterization. Good stuff!

  8. Great post. I worry about my characters sounding alike a lot. I've had many revisions of my first manuscript to correct this. My next one I'm going to use some character worksheets for my main characters and see if I can make them contrasting enough so they sound different and are different enough so they don't sound flat. We'll see if this works.

  9. I've never seen this show, or American Idol or anything, but the clip was really cool.
    Just taking it all in. Learning.

  10. i actually saw that clip on TV. Crazy! Just because i never have time for live tv and my DVR is full, so there's no taping new shows.
    Finally, I love me some dialogue. It's my fav tool

  11. That was a hell of a surprise. Good set of pipes on him though :)
    I like giving my characters little ticks and quirks that shows sides of their personality that you don't have to pronounce with any great detail. It's a subtle way of showing other sides of the characters.

  12. Mat, I really enjoyed this post. Everything about this guy speaks of character. From the song he chose to sing (Etta James would be a challenge for the best of singers), to his clothes, word choice (burrito slinger), to his need for a drink when it was over, to his holding his mother's hand as they walked off at the end. This reminded me of how small things can paint a picture so quickly and then actions can spin them on their heads. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

  13. I'm a little late to the game here. I watched half the video and then it froze up but I get the idea--you want to surprise your readers. The late writing teacher and author Jack Bickham used to say you want "unexpected but logical" things to occur in your stories.

    Thanks Matt. Now I'm gonna see if I watch the whole thing. He was in the middle of song when it froze.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!