Wednesday, May 21, 2008

7 Steps Toward Character Diversity:

7 Steps Toward Character Diversity

One problem than plagues most writers is creating characters that are too similar -- too much like themselves. If I had it my way, my stories would be full of middle-age fat bald guys. Hey, it might not be interesting be it’d be easy for me to “get into their brains.” Okay – not a good idea. How then shall we create characters? Here are seven ideas you can use to populate your story with diverse characters.

1. Make characters physically different. I took a Disney animation course once where animators discussed how they chose a “cast.” According to them, the ideal cast consists of a diverse group of characters. The starting point is physical characteristics. Select characters where some are tall, some short, some overweight, some skinny, some beautiful, some not so much. On another occasion I sat in on the decision about casting the move “Closure: The Problem with Money.” The director talked about the importance of selecting a supporting cast only after the key players are in place. This is obvious when some characters are supposed to be children of the others – but it is also important for the cast to have a “look” – not that they all had to be similar kind of people – but that the group form an interesting ensemble of people. So it is in any story – select cast members that are physically different from each other – to tell them apart and to bring diversity to the story.

2. Select characters that are emotionally and culturally different. Marge is a whiner. She’s best friends with Kathy who is an optimist. George is a staunch God-fearing Republican whose house backs up to his neighbors Buffy and Hank the nudists who like to take midnight skinny dips. Abu the Hindu gets stuck in the elevator for 11 hours with Donna the voluptuous Pentecostal gospel singer. And they both have to pee. Diverse people make interesting things happen. Of course, sometimes people who are too similar make things happen as well. What about the two feisty red-headed teenagers who both want to be the head cheerleader – they are similar in many ways but you’ve still got to find something that makes them different so they will take a different route to achieving the same goal.

3. Create characters with different sounding names. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Use them generously when selecting names. Readers or viewers easily get confused when Mary the detective is after Merriam the hitchhiker because she’s suspected of killing Martha the heiress. Carefully select each name to be different from others. Rarely create characters with names that begin with the same letter – unless there is a reason. You might have triplets named Larry, Luke, and Leonard… if you do have such a situation -- you need to give each one of them some unique characteristic that separates them in your story, otherwise your audience will get confused.

4. Give characters different voices. Authors tend to write dialog using their own voice. Don’t do it. It is a sure killer for any story. Listen to other people speak. Choose what makes their choice of words different – don’t depend on different accents -- an Irish brogue versus a southern drawl. Let choice of words, length of phrases, level of formality, intelligence and other aspects of language define your characters. Sit in a public place and listen to people talking. Write down phrases you hear. Develop an ear for each character so you can hear them talk – and then write down what they say.

5. Give characters differing life goals. People react to situations because of their beliefs or life goals. Two people find an envelope on a city street. It contains $500 and no other identification. A person who gambles, cheats on his income tax or who needs to buy cocaine will react differently than a honest-as-the-day-is-long janitor or a Sunday School teacher (we hope.) Specifically pick out, write down, know by heart, the core beliefs of each of your characters. That way when they are put in challenging situations, you will know how they might act. Plus – make sure the reader has an inkling of that character’s belief system so when they do act, it is not “out of character.” If your character does something unexpected – make sure there was some seed planted earlier (and maybe not fully revealed until later) to explain the behavior.

6. Use character tags. We don’t like to pigeon-hole people or make them one-dimensional, but tags do help define a character. Do you want your banquet dinner prepared by the cigar-chewing short order cook with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeves? How about by the fastidious blue-ribbon chef who takes the temperature of every pot at precise thirty minute intervals and insists that the floor is kept squeaky clean? Tags can define quick aspects of a character – but it doesn’t have to limiting them. The fastidious chef may NASCAR fan and the short-order cook might also train seeing-eye dogs because his kid sister is blind. By all means never create a character that is a perfect representation of a tag.

7. Give characters different but specific purposes within the story. Most characters are included in a story for a specific reason. A wise-cracking brother-in-law might give your story some levity. If he does – let him do his wise-cracking job throughout the story – don’t change him (without reason) into a sullen pessimist half-way though – unless that’s necessary for your story. Create specific characters to do certain tasks within your story. Your hero, for example – will have redeeming qualities that make him or her able to face up to some dire circumstance that the story will provide. Your hero may have an ally – someone who is a helper (Sam in Lord of the Rings comes to mind.) He may have a mentor, an opponent, a love interest, and so on – each one with a specific task to do in moving the story forward. Of course there are also shadow or changeling characters who start off as one type of character (an ally) and are later revealed to be something else (they are really a mole for the enemy.)

Look back at these items – they have to do with creating an interesting ensemble of diverse characters who will be able to carry your story. Your homework is to make a list of characters in your current or proposed story. For each character write down how they meet each one of these seven criteria. Use this as a start to then flesh out other biographical characteristics of each character – get to know them as unique individuals.

(c) Alan C. Elliott, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

74 Character types for your story, novel or screenplay

74 Character Types: I’m at the beginning of writing a new story and at this point I’m working on the creation of characters. I want each character to be unique and have something about them that is interesting, appealing, scary, obnoxious or fascinating. In these early stages, I’m looking at various things that make people work – some characteristic that drives their decisions. Of course, the characters will develop with more depth as I get to know them – but this is a beginning…

I’ve come up with these characteristics (and a few characters that exhibit the characteristic.) I mention some known characters, but I don’t want to make mine exactly like the one mentioned – it’s just a starting place…

1. Proper – Like Mrs Bucket in “Keeping up Appearances”
2. Miser – Silas Marner
3. Orderly, picky, OCD – Detective Monk
4. Puzzle-solving – Sherlock Holmes or Peter Whimsey
5. Adventure – Indiana Jones
6. Protective of home, environment – Tarzan
7. Gutsy woman – Katherine Hepburn in African Queen
8. Suave – James Bond
9. Insane leader – Hitler
10. Control-freak leader – The Godfather
11. Clever conniver – Time Robbins in Shawshank Redemption, MacGiver
12. Disturbed good-guy turned villain – Darth Vader
13. Self-effacing hero/friend-leader – Charlie Brown
14. Loyal – Sam in Lord of the Rings, Alfred in Batman
15. Misplaced loyalty –Alec Guinness in Bridge over River Kwai
16. Crazed intellect – Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, Dr. Brown in Back to Future
17. Unexpected hero – Rick in Casablanca
18. Normal guy put in unexpected danger – Cary Grant in North by Northwest
19. Gives up own desires to help others -- Jimmy Stewart in Wonderful Life
20. Bucks society norms to fight for justice – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
21. Naive hero – Forrest Gump
22. Overcome unfairness – Women in 9 to 5, Working Girl
23. Dreamer – Dorothy in Wizard of Oz

I could go on… here are some other driving characteristics that come to mind. Think of about people for whom this characteristic colors all their decisions: power, sex, love, money, success, revenge, survival, defense, learning, science, politics, helping others, shyness, gullibility, prejudice, bigotry, handicapped, blind, sick, cancer, congestive heart failure, health, workout, obesity, stuttering, bulimia, hearing, bald, ugly, sexy, beautiful, lonely, ignored, misused, perfectionist, just, (un)acceptance, purpose, greed, warrior, street-fighter, class clown, want children, want a spouse, reconciliation, escape, eating, drugs, alcohol, ashamed, defensive, etc. That's 74 -- if I've counted correctly.

Give your character one or more of these traits, put them in a situation for which this trait is a hindrance and see how they react. As I said, this is just a starting point – to create a character with traits that make them interesting.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Getting Published - like a seed in the desert

Like a seed in the desert: Have you ever seen one of those nature films where an unusual rainstorm comes to a desert? There are places in the world where it may rain only once every few years – sometimes as infrequently as every 5 to 10 years. And what happens? Within hours, dormant seeds hidden beneath the desert sand start to germinate. They blossom quickly. Insects are attracted to them and feast on the flowers and vegetation. A few seeds are produced that fall back to the desert floor, waiting for the next rain.

You might think of your writing like a desert. You’ve written a few novels, some poems, a screenplay – and nothing germinates. Or, if you manage to get an agent interested or the book actually published, it goes nowhere. This can be disheartening – and can make you give up. In fact, it makes most people never get a good start. What, if anything, can writers learn from the seeds in the desert?

I think the world follows a plan. The way one part of the world works is similar to the way another part works. If we can figure out the rhythms of nature, there is a chance we can apply those patterns to our everyday lives – and our writing. Let’s consider seeds.

Jesus told a parable about seeds that were sown on several different kinds of soil. (Matthew 13) Those that fell on good soil germinated and developed in full plants. Some fell into marginal soil and sprouted only to be choked by weeds. Some fell on bad soil and never germinated – or died immediately.

A fortunate writer creates a piece that falls on good soil. It finds a targeted audience (like the insects to the desert blossoms) and it grows like wildfire. Many more creations have some initial success (they get published or performed) only to languish in the marketplace and die quickly. Many, many other pieces never make it out of the desk drawer – or if they are sent to a publisher or agent, they fellowship with other unfortunate souls in the slush pile.

How do you find good soil for your writing? If I could tell you a cut-and-dried answer I’d be on the New York Times bestsellers list every week. However, indulge me a while and I’ll speculate.

Good soil is made up of a number of components. There is dirt and there is dirt. If you’ve ever prepared a flower bed, you know that plain old dirt is not your best bet for growing day lilies or begonias. You usually have to enrich the soil, add things to it – get it ready to nurture and feed your plants.

Good soil for your writing is made up of a number of components. You can’t grow most pine trees in Texas clay soil and a publisher of science fiction is not interested in your mystery romance. You’ve got to target your writing – so it will fall on the soil that it good for it.

Next, you’ve got to consider timing. The desert seeds are patient. If they try to germinate when they feel like it, they will die in short order. No… they wait for the proper moment. You too must wait for your topic to be “hot” if you want it to sell and keep selling. Good luck trying to predict the marketplace. Nevertheless, you should be passionate about your writing, prepare it the best you can, and seek both the good soil and right timing to get it into the hands of the public.

There is also the contents of the seed to consider. It contains viable food within itself – food that gets it started when the timing is right. Bad writing – the contents of your work -- rarely sells even when the soil is good and the timing is right.

Finally, (although I’m sure I could think of other seed-things) nature creates seeds in abundance. I recently noticed a field of wildflowers that seemed to go on forever. This one field must have contained tens of thousands of plants – and each of them was producing seed for the next year. Some would not make it – some would. Don’t put all your hopes into one piece – create many seeds.

Like in nature – if you are patient – you may find that good soil and proper timing to make one of your seeds blossom and grow into a giant sequoia