I’m reading a bad book right now.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in revision mode, or maybe it’s because I enjoyed this book as a kid and don’t find it living up to my expectations. The book is Vendetta by Peter David (yes ST:TNG for those of you clicking along at home). Normally I find David’s writing to be spot on and funny, but this one…
Here’s where it started:
“You’re not the one who was ankle-deep in blood,” said Crusher.
“I sure was!” said Geordi hotly.
Yes, the writing’s bad but that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is that this isn’t how these characters would act. Guinan wouldn’t say sir to Picard, Picard wouldn’t reveal his frustrations openly, and Geordi (hot-head that he is) would have a better comeback than “I sure was!” Sounds almost cheerful doesn’t it?
This got me to thinking about my characters, are they full enough that something could seem OUT of character, or even IN character. How do I give my characters a distinct personality, one that can have variation certainly, growth most definitely, but never have a moment like this one that jars you out of your suspension of reality and makes you think about checking your e-mail.
1) Understand your character’s relationships to other characters: Your character has friends, enemies, family members, co-workers, and everything in between. Each relationship has a slightly different dynamic, but all stemming from the base of your character’s personality. It may be that your character doesn’t like to make enemies and so tries to be his gregarious self around someone who doesn’t like him, but awkwardly. Some relationships with co-workers are strictly professional, whereas others are more casual. One might think of this as a spectrum of intimacy, or the amount a character can be their “real” self around another character. What’s important is that this remain consistent. A superior is always, sir, until a situation arises to naturally make the relationship more casual.
2) Characters will change with experience: But these should be experiences we see. If your main character is a gregarious and funny person and becomes somber and reflective, you had better show us why. Change is good, it enriches our understanding of the person we’re trying to bring to life, but that change needs to happen on the page. If a cop changes after he loses his partner, a partner who was alive and drinking in the previous book, then he’d better kick the bucket somewhere on the page. Otherwise we’re being left out of the important experiences of our character’s life, and that changes the reader’s level of intimacy.
3) Know more about your character than your readers do: Your character’s favorite color may not come up on the first page. The kind of whiskey they like, their hobbies, a good story reveals these details gradually. If the leg work’s been done up front to establish this character, then when a new detail is revealed it is shown to be a part of the whole, even when it seems inconsistent. One of my favorite examples of this is Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec. He’s a gruff libertarian man, who likes to play as Duke Silver, a saxophone playing jazz lethario. He remains consistent in that he keeps this part of himself separate from most of the people in his life, and it provides color to his outward gruffness to see such a suave and fun loving side.
4) A measured response is often better than a freak out: Geordi freaks out all over the place in this book, with little provocation. It’s overly dramatic, even if the reasons for it are sometimes understandable. It’s like in singing, the louder moments are made all the better by the quiet ones around them. Frustration is best kept on a low boil that is then allowed to burst rather than constantly bubbling over. I’m not saying there aren’t people who react to crisis this way, and it may be that you want to portray a certain level of immaturity in your character, but make sure that’s what you’re going for. This could also probably be distilled down to eliminating all or most of the “[character] said [blank]-ly” tags from sentences.
5) It takes time to build a relationship: No character is fully formed in the first sentence they utter. There definitely is room to change the direction of a character, or flesh them out in later chapters, or even in later books. A certain about of leeway can be afforded so you don’t have to feel locked in. Just make sure that new details aren’t too drastically different from established norms, unless they’re a contrast like our good friend Ron.
6) Your moral compass: Briefly it’s also a good idea to know what your character’s values are, would they never kill, do they oppose mastication, that sort of thing. Again, morality can change over time, but rarely all at once.
What makes your characters distinct? What would be out of character?