Thursday, June 13, 2013

Write Away with Jeannie Watt

CHARACTER DO'S AND DON'T'S

Over the next several Write Away posts, Pink Heart Society Editor Jeannie Watt will talk about the DO’s and DON’T’s of creating believable characters.

Part 2 MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS STAND OUT

We've all encountered certain character types over and over again in our reading adventures.  There’s the alpha male billionaire who refuses to allow himself to become emotionally involved; the witchy other woman who plots against the heroine; the distant mother; the stoic cowboy; the shy academic; the wounded warrior; etc, etc.

Why do we see these same character types over and over again? One reason is that stereotypes can be easy to write—open document, insert crabby mother-in-law—however, I believe that big reason for the proliferation of certain character types is that readers like them.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that as much as the reader may seek out character types they enjoy, they don’t want the exact same wounded warrior in each and every story they read. That gets monotonous and that’s where the dreaded word “stereotype” comes in.

What’s an author to do? I have an easy answer that’s not necessarily easy to execute—

DO make your stock character unique in some way.

Okay, so I have a stoic cowboy, dealing with personal pain and trying to save his ranch—very much like many other stoic cowboys. How do I make him unique? I know—he juggles. On horseback. It calms his nerves.

Uh…yeah.
   
This brings me to my first DON’T…

DON’T make your character unique in an over the top/hard to believe way unless it reflects the character’s personality.

A cowboy might juggle in public, but if he did, he’s probably not a stoic cowboy who keeps everything inside, but rather a laid back, easy going cowboy.  Or a show off.  If one of my stoic cowboys juggled, he’d do it in the privacy of the bunkhouse. It is an excellent stress reliever.

Next…DON’T make your characters unique in a superficial way.

Have you ever read a book, or watched a movie or TV show where you can tell that the writer was trying too hard to make the characters unique, and it just didn't work? Nine times out of ten, that’s because the unique quality is superficial—something slapped on the character to make them stand out.  It’s not a reflection of something in their character. So the juggling cowboy does stand out, but if juggling doesn’t reflect something in his character, then it’s an uncomfortable (for the reader and the cowboy) mantle the author has forced him to wear so that he’s different.

DO think about your character and find something that reflects their inner self to make them unique.
 
A classic is the repressed librarian/teacher who’s struggling to break free. She’s too shy to do anything in public, so instead she wears risqué underwear. This comes from her character and is believable—but the librarian in lacy underwear has been done a time or two. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, but perhaps there’s another way of expressing private rebellion. Maybe she indulges in a secret hobby. Maybe she takes on a different persona in online chat groups. Maybe she’s a masked superhero…although that has been done a time or two, too.

Lastly…DO think about opposites when assigning unique characteristics to your characters.

You’d expect a cowboy to be able to handle just about any kind of tough outdoor situation. But what if he’s afraid of snakes?

You’d expect the shy librarian to be afraid of snakes. What if she’s fascinated by them, has studied them, and rescues our cowboy from a snake?

What if our librarian is a deadly shot and the cowboy doesn’t like guns because of something that once happened to him or a loved one?


These scenarios are the opposite of what we would expect to happen, but they aren’t over the top or superficial.  They make the character memorable and different in a meaningful way. Mission accomplished.


For Part 1 of Character Do's and Don't's--Motivation--click here.

Harlequin Superromance author Jeannie Watt lives in rural Nevada and writes fast-paced, character driven stories set in the western United States.   Her latest book Once A Champion is out in June. 

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