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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Character Crisis (in the wee hours)

The neurotic insomniac finds herself with so many tantalizing options. She can wile away the hours wondering if she took her slacks out of the dryer, or enumerating her snoring husband’s shortcomings. She can ponder the precariousness of her finances, contemplate the erosion of her physical abilities, or there’s the ever popular inevitability of death to keep her eyes wide open. If she’s working on a book, the possibilities for relentless inner debate are endless. 

But the theme of tonight's sleeplessness in Glendale is an upcoming workshop I'll be giving on Creating Credible Children's Book Characters. 

I’ve given this sort of talk many times and am not afraid to speak in front of strangers, not afraid they won’t like me or laugh at my jokes. Nor am I afraid I’ll forget to put on my pants. We all know the  drill of writing character is to build back story, and get to know your character’s world, what she wants, and fears, and needs, and thinks she needs, blah, blah.

But, in the nether-time betwixt night and morn, it hit me that The less we know someone, the easier it is to sum them up. The less we know them, the easier it is to hate them, or to be giddy in love with them, or even to be utterly indifferent. Example: We know only enough about political candidates to feel VERY STRONGLY about them. Ditto Celebrities.

We’re sure we know enough about the guy who cut us off in traffic to sum up his whole nature.  Add in the kind of car he’s driving (expensive or junker) to bring him into even sharper focus. Two little facts. 1. He cut us off.  2. He’s rich/poor.  Either way, we’ve got him nailed.

Likewise, we believe we have all the info we need on the mom smacking her kid in the market. Put her in a too tight tank top in Walmart, or dress her as an account exec shopping at Whole Foods and either way we're instantly sure we know everything about who she is, why she’s frazzled, what her life is like, and how her kids will turn out. 

Same with the old man walking his lumpy old dog.  And the boy on whom we have a debilitating crush. The less we know them, the clearer they are. Add in a few more details about any of them and they'll get muddied --- because the more you know about any person, the more confusing complications, contradictions and gray areas there are, right? 

A play writing teacher once told me that Romeo and Juliet, and early Disney princesses and princes, had to be bland and featureless. 


Creating a character with distinct characteristics gives your readers something not to like about him. Conversely, keeping him harmless and vague, pleasant and attractive, makes him universally likable and sympathetic -- unobjectionable. Readers automatically supply the missing parts drawing from their personal assumptions and experience, and the more blanks the better.  

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare saved all the interesting, specific, quirky traits for the character parts, Mercutio, the nurse, the priest... Comics, villains, side kicks.

What’s that got to do with my upcoming workshop for which aspiring writers are paying hard, cold cash? 

Well, am I to tell them that if they want readers to recognize and sympathize with their characters they should write caricatures? Choose two traits from column A, and two from column B?

He: Deep, brooding, tough on the outside  ---  Cream puff on the inside.
She: Free spirit, rebellious on the outside  ---  Scared, hurt little kitten on the inside.
He/She: Socially inept loner with obsessive interest in something arcane --- Loyal and loving on the inside.  
She: Pretty, peppy and popular on the outside --- evil on the inside.
He: Macho jock on the outside --- Sensitive scared puppy on the inside. 

Trite, predictable characters are easy for the reader to recognize. The iconic short hand of sit com characters as representatives of a type, require no effort for the reader/audience to grasp.  

But, isn’t that what perpetuates racist, sexist, ageist, stereotypes?  

We all want to sell our books and see strangers reading them on the bus. And as a speaker, I want to share whatever I think I know about how to achieve that. 

And maybe writing interesting, complex main characters that NOT EVERYONE WILL LIKE defeats the purpose of writing -- because it keeps readership and sales numbers low, and gets mixed reviews, if it gets published and reviewed at all...

But wait, we want to write good books, right? And the workshop is about creating credible characters...  See the problem?
xo Amy 


The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Everything you say is way too true. Drat!!!!

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Amy: Insightful, published author, participant in ABC Pirate Video - Fun Gal to be around.
Writer: Shy, Insecure - Literary Sex Symbol

Anonymous said...

I am not sure where you are getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this information for my mission.

Danna Staaf said...

For what it's worth, I thought you did a good job presenting the advantages of both simple and complex characters, without saying "You should do it this way."