Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Choosing Character

There are two basic types of character: the ordinary person and the special person.

The special person is really good at their job, has skills most people don’t, or maybe even possesses powers beyond those of regular folk.

The ordinary person is like you or me.

Once you decide which type your main character is, the important thing is to get the reader to see the character as someone worth reading about.

Both types have certain drawbacks which, while not a problem, need to be addressed.

The ordinary character often starts off his story with not much going on. It’s necessary to establish the kind of life he leads, but this can easily become boring. 

There’s no reason why everyday life has to be a chore to read about, but just portraying a character’s existence accurately isn’t going to be enough to hold the reader’s attention.

The risk with the specialist character is that they will deal with their problems too easily. The plot can be so well suited to their particular set of skills that it ends up feeling contrived. 

The guy who was a hero in the army beats up ten guys, builds a gun out of spare parts and makes an impossible shot to save the day. Luckily, those were the three things he was really good at.

In both cases, you need to show the character as more than one dimensional. And to do so as early as possible. You can do this for both types in a very similar manner.

The ordinary character still has to deal with mundane issues before things get crazy, and how he deals with them will reflect his personality, even if that personality wants to run away and hide.

The special character can’t use his special skills in all situations. If a meter maid insists on giving him a ticket he can’t just karate chop her in the neck.

We all have to deal with unglamorous problems that have nothing to do with saving the world or finding love, but rather than rushing through them to get to the main plot, those are the moments you can use to your advantage.

If you make those moments socially awkward and difficult to navigate, how your character responds will establish the kind of person he is very quickly.

If the character is in a rush and is told to wait, you can show them waiting and getting frustrated, but that doesn’t reveal anything. If you show how they get around a minor obstacle in an unexpected way it will show the kind of person they are, and it will also make the scene more interesting.

The key is not to allow them to just do as they’re told. Give them a reason why they can’t wait and then see what they do.

A character who is forced to cut in at the head of a line when normally they would never do that will reveal a side of themselves in a dramatic way without the need for guns and car chases. If you can come up with a good enough reason for why they can’t back out, the rest will take care of itself. 

And often how the character handles the situation will surprise even the writer.
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45 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My main character had a couple special abilities, but it was his weaknesses that made him interesting and relatable - and fun to write!

mooderino said...

@Alex - and fun to read.

John Wiswell said...

My favorite characters usually take smudges of color from both pallets, just as, in my experiences, the most interesting people usually have some special characteristics hazardously mashed in with their generic and mundane ones. And I loved you closing with the assertive anime girl! That was so cute.

Juliet Bond said...

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mooderino said...

@John - Often a character will transition from one to another. It's how they're introduced that often needs to be made engaging quickly.

@Juliet - Will do.

Al Diaz said...

My main characters have special abilities. There was a time they had few weaknesses. Too few. And then I realized they were sooooooo boring to me and to others. Then I gave them mundane flaws. Story changed and my writing changed. I think for the better.

Taryn Blackthorne said...

Great post! Too many fledgling writers forget this about the character with special abilities.

mrkelly2u said...

Great post. My WIP has a normal character at its centre, but has a hidden trait that will make him special towards the climax of the novel. It's hidden even to him, which I'm hoping makes the character and story that little more interesting. I like the idea that both the reader and the character can and will be surprised by how they can change over the course of the story. Great blog, by the way.

Jadie Jones said...

great post. i caught myself using "ordinary" dialogue, which weighed down the important parts of the conversation, too. I think the rules you've outlined here can be used across the board. Definitely tweeting :)

Donna Shields said...

Great info! 'Karate chop a meter maid' Sorry, that just struck me in my funny bone.

Sharon Himsl said...

Helpful comparison between the ordinary (i.e me!) and the special character. I need to remember the difference. Just doing some a-z hopping and checking out other blogs. Thanks!

Elise Fallson said...

My characters are special. Sometimes I think they're too special, which makes them unoriginal.

Jay Noel said...

I do love reading about "ordinary" people put in extraordinary circumstances.

My current projects center around a very special protagonist that learns he's not as special as he thought he was, and that his vanity leads to his downfall.

shayla kwiatkowski said...

Very useful theme idea! Visiting you on the A-Z hop.

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - Flaws always help.

@Taryn - thanks.

@Kelly - cheers.

@Jadie - thank for tweeting.

@Donna - there are no good ways to deal with poor service.

mooderino said...

@Sharon - thanks.

@Elise - too special is hard to maintain and keep interesting.

@Jay - sounds like a good combination.

@Shayla - thanks for visiting.

Elaine Smith said...

My characters are particularly unsuited to their new tasks - how each one masters the basics is their developmental arc. For my characters it is about how they came to want to get better.

Sarah Allen said...

My former roommate and I talk all the time about how vastly different our writing styles are, and I think this hits it on the head. She always has these really exciting special characters, whereas mine are almost always thoroughly ordinary. I do this on purpose, but its really interesting to think about this and how each type comes with its own problems to be addressed (you hit my issues right on the head too.) Great post!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Brinda said...

I think we all want to read about the ordinary person or situation that becomes extraordinary in some way.

Matthew McCoy said...

Great insight! Thank you for sharing and look forward to following!

Al Diaz said...

I checked the Funnily Enough site. I just want to tell you it's awesome. Great information in one single place.

VR Barkowski said...

Excellent post. I write ordinary characters because I want to see how they behave in extraordinary situations. I'm constantly astounded.

I do recall editing a book once that included six pages describing a woman cleaning out her refrigerator. Relatable? Maybe. Boring? Absolutely.

~VR Barkowski

LD Masterson said...

As usual, you take something we sort of already know but you find a way to make it clearer.

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, I'm think it's overcoming the weaknesses that make the characters most interesting.

Rachel said...

I find the paragraph about who its not appropriate to karate chop a meter maid in the neck far funnier than I should have. It was terrible timing for me to read it, since I started laughing while the TV was discussing something about murder.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great points. It's a good idea to show your character's personality through their actions, and saves the reader from the drudgery of being informed of characterization more directly.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse

Heidi Mannan said...

Great post! So many writing choices, isn't there? Character is an important one.

Suzy Turner said...

I think it's important to have a good mixture of normals and specials, don't you think? When I'm writing an urban fantasy book (YA), I actually really enjoy writing about the normal people among the supernaturals!

mooderino said...

@Elaine - the difficult part is getting the reader interested at the beginning of the arc before things have changed.

@Sarah - I enjoy reading both types, they just have different issues to deal with.

@Brinda - bestseller lists would suggest otherwise.

@Matthew - thanks, I'm looking forward to be followed

@Al Diaz - turns out there are other people's opinions than mine. Who knew?

mooderino said...

@VR - that kind of refrigerator writing is all too common.

@LD - I hope so.

@Lynda - I think so too.

@Rachel - I apologise.


mooderino said...

@Shannon - definitely the best way. Drudgery is never good.

@Heidi - too many choices.

@Suzy - I think that's more down to personal preference. Whichever type you choose, you have to make that type interesting to the reader without relying on the bit where the exciting stuff happens.

Rinelle Grey said...

A very good distinction. I write both kinds of characters, and agree that it's easy to make a special character deal with their problems too easily. Good advice.

Rinelle Grey

mooderino said...

@Rinelle - knowing what to do and having the tools to do it, even if it takes a lot of effort, isn't all that interesting.

Jess * Jessie * Jessy said...

Great! And our characters certainly have to be someone our readers can identify with. We can never forget the reader!

Melanie Schulz said...

I guess I always lean more to the extraordinary. Maybe because my own life is so vanilla.

BitchyD said...

Great post!

Visiting from A-Z!

www.thedrunkrunner.com

Margo Berendsen said...

I love that example of cutting in line when that's not something the character would normally do. It's simple but it does the trick showing so much.

mooderino said...

@Jess - interesting tends to trump identifiable.

@Melanie - I don't think it makes a difference which you prefer, just how you execute it.

@Bitchy D - thanks for visiting.

@Margo - I think those small moments can be just as engrossing as the wham bam moments.

miss uncertain said...

I like my main character to be ordinary yet strong-willed and with the ability to move or empathize other people.

Another great post. As expected :)


Sincerely,Miss Uncertain---sidetracked

The Wicked Writer said...

Great post, got me thinking as my main character has special abilities.

mooderino said...

@miss u - the good thing about that is it can be shown in how she handles every day things as well as the major plot points.

@Wicked - glad to be of service.

Trisha F said...

I'm okay with either, so long as the ordinary person isn't too boring and the special person isn't too perfect :)

mooderino said...

@Trisha - nicely summed up.

Barry Hoffman said...

I have problems with this writers classifying characters into just two categories: the "ordinary" person and the "special" character (someone with special abilities). What I do to make my characters unique is to create a backstory which helps explains that character's reaction to certain events. The backstory is what can suck the reader into that character. Other ways to differentiate and individualize characters is by the way they talk (one of my recent characters talks non-stop, constantly changing subjects) or their mannerisms. In this way none of my characters is "ordinary."

mooderino said...

@Barry - I think you're somewhat splitting hairs. How you choose to present your characters has nothing to do with whether they are a regular person or some kind of specialist.

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