Out of Character?

Disclaimer: No books have been harmed in the writing of this article. All characters have been provided with a safety briefing before participating in the experiment and have signed waivers to that effect.

I write fiction not for my readers and not for myself. I write fiction for the sake of those odd heroic characters that are contained therein. They are counting on me as much as I am counting on them.
― Nicholas Trandahl


I don’t know about you, but my life is a novel populated by troublesome characters.

If you don’t believe me, you need only peruse an account of my latest altercation with one particularly recalcitrant specimen of their number: Let me get into your head! screameth the author, pulling at her hair in desperation.

It is not unusual for writers to have a love-hate relationship with their characters. As authors we want to be fully in control of our story with all of its twists and turns; yet more often than not, we discover that once we have populated our manuscript with characters, the ungrateful residents will make a run for it and take a life of their own.

Characters can make or break a novel. It comes as no surprise that getting characterisation wrong will ensure our manuscripts a cosy trip to the publisher’s fireplace. And given that winters are getting longer and colder with each year, I fear that kindling is in high demand these days.

So far this series of writing tips focused on the Don’ts rather than the Dos of fiction writing, on avoiding mistakes that may deny our manuscripts the chance to see the light of print. We’ve prepared a well presented manuscript and followed all their rules so far. The prose sounds just right, not one jarring sentence in the mix. We even avoided writing in an unsuitable style or using excess adjectives and adverbs. Even that truculent comparison has been brought into play, not to mention the spades of great dialogue. However, I can’t help thinking of those overworked publishers freezing in their offices late into the night with no firewood at their disposal and an idea struck me:

How about a little character sabotage?

Even if we’ve mastered viewpoint, there are still some wonderful means of making our novel less compelling and thus ensure the publisher’s fire will be nicely stoked. Feeling charitable this eve? Let’s see what we can do.

Your first bet is to launch into the story without naming any characters at all. Write as many pages as you can: heated action, conflict galore, show it all unfold but do not reveal one single character name in the process and make sure there are no instances of characterisation at all. I know it’s tough, but hey! We want that fire going, don’t we?

If you’re not doing too well on that count, this second pointer is bound to help get that manuscript into the slush pile. Pick up an old sock and draw a face on it.  If the characters have as many in-depth traits as that magic-marker-bejeweled sock, job done. Pin it above your writing desk as a reminder any time you’re tempted to write in a character that exceeds sock traits or actions.

Make them boring. Make them unbelievable. Make them as unpleasant as you possibly can. Here are some of my favourite character clichés for inspiration:

  1. The Mad Scientist: An inexorable thirst for knowledge and desire for progress have left him isolated from the world and functioning as a somewhat amoral character. Even if his intentions are noble ones – experiments undertaken for the sake of humanity or for the greater good of the world – it will all end very badly indeed. A big head of fluffy white hair and glasses hanging off the tip of his nose are a must.
  2. The Russian Spy: If the character is male they will be harsh, hardened by years of work in the field. He drinks a lot of vodka and, of course, speaks English with an accent. If they are a woman, she will be beautiful and usually blonde. Long legs are a prerequisite as well as being versed in the art of seduction.
  3. La Femme Fatale: She spells danger from the moment she first makes an appearance on the page. There is an air of mystery about her and she has all men at her fingertips. She is necessarily the ultimate seductress and will use her power to get whatever she wants.
  4. The Mary Sue: The ideal woman with a heart of gold. She is beautiful, although she does not know it and must overcome some terrible tragedy from her past when she meets the “right” man.
  5. That Brooding Rebel: There is no question about it: he must be both gorgeous and a taciturn. He eschews the society of men and women in equal measure. Broods a lot, usually because of his less than exquisite background, but will become the most sensitive and understanding of men when his fated love comes along.
  6. The Nice Guy: Everyone likes him. He is considerate and modest, has a good sense of humour but will always laugh at himself rather than others. His sole focus in life is to win the heart of the woman he loves, but since even fictional female characters prefer the “bad guy” he will not succeed in his quest try as much as he will.
  7. The Average Joe / Jill: Medium-sized, brown hair, brown eyes and with no distinctive characteristics whatsoever – average Jill and Joe read like police-report descriptions. Everything about them is generic. They lead boring lives where nothing happens and die much the same – of old age usually. Unusual choice for a protagonist, but often found populating the supporting cast. 
  8. Mirror Mirror: Whether a plain Jane or a rich b*tch, a reluctant hero or a b*st*rd of a libertine, this character finds it impossible to know what they look like unless they look in a mirror. When they do take a peek, their features are usually flawless and in many cases will remind the reader of a specific actor or actress who will be named in order to facilitate their imagination and spare the author the trouble of actually describing them.
  9. The Heartless Villain: The bad guy who is so bad that he is simply unbelievable. His  sole motivation for all despicable actions is nothing more than a desire to do evil. To make up for all this villainy, he has an equally “touching” good side: he either loves his mother or remembers fondly the girl he fell in love with as a young boy, or perhaps he is a vegetarian who loves his cat. When he confronts the hero, he will always give an account of his plans and offer less than plausible explanations for his actions. If inconvenient for the author to keep him meddling in the protagonist’s business, the villain will conveniently give up on his evil plotting for no reason whatsoever.
  10. The Fashion-Savvy Gay Friend: Always at the ready with a witty line and some fashion advice, especially when his broken-hearted heroine is in need of shopping therapy. He refers to men as “she” and to women as “girlfriend.” The master of taste when it comes to labels and interior design, he is a shoulder to cry on and can always be trusted to critique other characters’ tastes, whether in clothes or men.

Feel free to add to the list. I’m sure you’ve come across a stock character or two in your day. 

Archetypes exist for a reason, so it is possible to use one as a guide and then add some twists to make them our own. Beware: if you want to make your novel unpublishable, steer away from the cliché at your own peril. 

The above ought to have done it: we are well on our way into unpublished oblivion. But if you’re afraid that the novel might still sneak through, perhaps the third solution will come to the rescue: introduce all characters at once so that the reader can have no chance to wrap their head around who’s who. Do you have ten or perhaps a dozen characters in your novel? Bring them all to the same table as near the start of the novel as you can and let the chaos begin!

It’s also a good idea to introduce a few extras here and there. Let them show up only once and then disappear from the plot never to be heard of again. Walk-on characters are fun and they are also bound to irritate a publisher, which is exactly what we’re attempting to accomplish here.

Another good way of getting the publisher confused is by allowing several characters to dominate the narrative, so that it is impossible to determine who the protagonist is. The easiest way to accomplish this is by using multiple viewpoints with as little skill as we can possibly muster. And if we can also make sure that they are characters we don’t care about, all the better.

If all else fails, here is the masterstroke: create an unsympathetic protagonist. Of course, even such protagonists can be compelling if we dedicate a lot of time and care to make them likeable. Do not fear. Get them to kill their wife after abusing her for years or molest a child and show no remorse for it whatsoever, and chances are no one will read beyond the first few pages.

You know what. I’ve changed my mind. The whole book-burning idea just doesn’t sit well with me somehow. I’d much rather my manuscript was allowed to live another day. With that in mind, I’ll have to think of a different way to keep the publishers warm. Cup of tea springs to mind. Unless of course everyone else decides to go along with the original plan, in which case I’m off the hook. 😉

Daily Prompt: Teach Your (Bloggers) Well

Call me Ishmael

The opening line of Moby-Dick must be one of the most recognisable in Western literature.  Imagine now that Melville had kept the structure of the sentence but substituted the name for another.

Call me John.

It does’t come anywhere near the impact of the original, does it? Ishmael tells its own story. There is a mystery attached to it, something that prompts us to delve deeper, search for an underlying meaning, both apparent and hidden from view. Whereas John… What could possibly interest us in a plain old John?

That is not to say that there are no Johns of interest to be found in modern literature, however…  Here is a challenge for you. Do you recall a John this very moment?

cardboard-cartoon-character-4-8141594While there are many ways for a writer to miss the mark when it comes to characterisation, it is near impossible for a publisher to make a decision either way without delving a little deeper into the manuscript first.

There are a couple of indicators they will be on the lookout for from the first page: character names. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet perhaps, but get it wrong, and I’m afraid that what our publisher will be sniffing out in-between the lines is the amateur writer.

Why do names matter? First impressions are as important in print as they are in person and the use of clichéd names – the Jacks and Joes, Marys and Sarahs we have come across one hundred times over – will signal to the publisher that they may well be reading a manuscript whose author either lacks the imagination to search out distinctive names for their characters or are themselves of a rather clichéd mentality.

On the other hand it is possible to err in the opposite direction by giving characters in a contemporary setting overly exotic names and this will cause just as much damage. Just think about having to read a novel populated by Grunzilbas and Frantomimons.

While a good plot may carry through characters with ordinary names, a poor plot is unlikely will not be strengthened by the use of character names that – while certainly original – are also difficult to remember and will be a cause of great irritation for whoever attempts to make it past the first few pages.

There is a third problem to add to the mix; what I like to call the Russian syndrome. Say you’ve found an interesting name for your character, which is neither clichéd, nor intrusively exotic. Take “Liese” for example. It is unusual enough to be memorable, but not so unusual as to make it annoying. You’ve even come across a surname that will work well with it… say: “Helling”. You’re off to a good start:

Enter Liese Helling.  

First sentence done, but wait a minute! What’s this? One page later the reader’s head is already spinning. After being introduced to Liese Helling in the first sentence, the next gives them an account of Mrs Helling’s troubled afternoon. Two sentences further and here’s Liesy being reprimanded  by her villainous husband. Then they are witness to Liese’s inner life while she bemoans her fate. Helling gets an urgent call from her children’s school to inform her of a bullying incident and then Ms Liese abandons everything to…

Now imagine that the scene unfolds with another six or seven characters in the room, and that for each of them there are four or five name variants. Instead of having to remember seven or eight names, we have to keep track of forty throughout.

While most readers will keep at it trying to wrap their heads around character names in the great works of one Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, they will be less likely to be as patient when reading a novel by a modern writer. So… It is best to give them time to get used to the character before asking them to remember a Liese Helling’s half dozen appellatives.

The solution to all these problems is a straightforward one:

  1. Research names for you characters. There are plenty of books on names and excellent internet resources too. Choose names that suit them. It is never too early to think of the underlying symbolism of a name; this may help deepen characters and add something else for the reader to delight in.
  2. Make them distinctive enough without making them sound like something out of a Martian encyclopaedia (unless you are writing science fiction, of course, in which case you may have a broader spectrum of names to work with).
  3. Then choose one way to refer to them, your favourite appellative, and stick to it.

Of course… we mustn’t forget to introduce them too. I know, I know. But you’ll be surprised how often it happens: ten pages of fast-paced action and not a character name in sight! There is no point in their having memorable names if the reader does’t get to know them.

Here we step into the realm of characterisation proper. More on this coming soon.