Something new in Mystery Maven land!
Today, I'm adding a new feature to the blog. One I hope you'll enjoy and also find to be useful in your writing endeavours. It began earlier this month when Capital Crime Writers, the Ottawa mystery writers association, held a day long session called Capital Mayhem. It included a wonderful interview with Peter Robinson followed by three panels.
The first panel, Kick-Ass Characters, featured local mystery authors Barbara Fradkin, Robin Harlick, Mary Jane Maffini and Linda Wiken (me, as Erika Chase). What a great topic! We decided to have some fun with it and rather than have a moderator, we each came up with some questions, stuck them in a super creepy glass skull mug, and took turns selecting one and answering it. Now, you know this group of writers really likes to talk and have fun, so we only got part-way through all those tantalizing questions. So, I've tasked each of them with answering one of the leftover (but equally important) questions which will appear on Mystery Maven Canada every few weeks. The answers appear in alpha-order, that's as in alphabetical not the others so known to dog lovers. So, stay tuned. And enjoy!
Today's question is:
How do you keep all your characters from becoming one big blur in the mind of the reader?
There is nothing worse than reading a book in which all the characters are bland and generic, all talking, looking and behaving the same. The more characters there are in a book, particularly of the “walk-on” variety, the more difficult it is to keep them distinct.
The key to creating distinctive characters is to make sure you use only as many characters as you have to, and to make them vivid, unique and contrasting. Vary appearances, names, speech, and backstory. Rather than a bland (and forgettable) description of height, weight and hair colour, give the reader a single vivid image that speaks to the character’s personality as well as looks. E.g. His new wife was a pampered poodle, complete with shiny curls and big pink bow.
Choose each character’s name with care, not only to avoid similar sounding names, but also to match the character’s age, ethnicity, and the image you wish to create. Ethel and Mabel conjure up very different pictures from Candy or Lolita. But beware of stereotypes. Going against stereotype, such as naming a flirtatious sixteen year-old girl Ethel, can make the character even more memorable. And create some built-in tensions.
In the end, however, the best guarantee that your characters will stand out is to make each a fully rounded, real person with specific fears, yearnings, conflicts, and dreams. Each character should have a hope and a fear, however small.
Become your characters.
Sometimes a myriad of characters can become one big blur in the mind of the writer too. The best way I know to keep characters manageable is to keep them to an optimum number. If a secondary character doesn’t help move the story along, I remove him or her no matter how much I’ve grown to like them. I also try to give each character a distinctive name and not have any names starting with the same first letter. Too often I’ve become confused myself when reading a book where the characters’ names are too similar. But I suppose how I endeavour to make each character a distinctive person in my readers’ minds is by becoming the characters myself as I write them into the story. This way I can give them a distinctive voice, a distinctive way of moving, of thinking, of speaking, each with their own unique motivations. These secondary characters have to not only look different, but they need to act and speak differently, just like real people.
A few tips: every character in a book should have a unique purpose. Don't have two characters do the job of one. Having said that I suffer from a surplus of sidekicks and work hard to make them seem different. For instance, Mrs. Parnell, eightysomething WWII vet and technical whiz, is often found chainsmoking Bensen & Hedges and swilling Harvey's Bristol Cream in contrast to Alvin, the world's worst office assistant with nine visible earrings, leather and bad attitudes.
Dialogue is a good way to distinguish: each main character should have some words that are unique to that character. For example, Mrs. Parnell likes to use military jargon. "We shall fight them on the beaches..." No one else in the book ever does. Alvin prefers to 'Lord thunderin' Jesus, conveying his Eastern roots.
By using the behaviours, clothing, etc and the unique words, you can cut down on a lot of tags and people should know who is speaking or acting.
Right off the bat, give your characters individual traits, whether it be physical, like whether they gesture a lot while speaking, or maybe it’s a tilt of the head when thinking, or the habit of twiddling one’s thumbs while listening. And then remember to use them. An easy way to achieve this is by picturing each character as they’re speaking, visualising whatever trait you’ve assigned that person, and being sure to add it as you picture it in your mind.
Having each main character speak a bit differently is also effective. It can be as simple as ending each statement with an ‘eh’, or perhaps this person starts each question by saying, “Hmm’. Maybe, because of your character’s background, you decide to add a local saying or colloquialism in his or her speech patterns. Some may even end each statement with a question mark simply because the manner of speaking ends with a high note.
These are all easy cues to the reader and will eliminate the need for endless tags of who is speaking at that moment. Whichever one you choose, visualize it each time you think of your character so that it becomes second nature when writing dialogue.