I was asked to take a look at some pages recently, through one of those “critique my work” sites. I’m not a particular fan of those sites, for they open one’s work up to assassination via trolls; every nut on the internet that thinks they are an expert goes to task on these poor writers, and they do not wield a scalpel, but rather a fucking battle axe. I don’t use those sites. I prefer to be humiliated by a professional.
That being said, I took a look. Clever premise – I smiled. The pages began… and my smile faded. Potty humor is not my thing, so I’ll overlook that (I’ll never understand the American male’s fascination with poop). The main problem for me? No distinct characters.
A character is like an onion – “you gotta peel back the layers” in order to understand them. I think that is where a lot of us fail – we don’t truly know our characters. We think we do, of course… but if we did, each character, even the one-line housekeeper, would be unique. Their mannerisms, their cadence, the way they look at the world – no two characters should be alike.
For me, the way to create distinctive characters is through research (yes, that again) and backstory. It is the character’s backstory that shapes them. The lives they have led colors the present-day lives they lead, just as your backstory, your personal history, is what has shaped you into the person you are today.
“Drama is life with the boring bits cut out,” said dear old Hitch, and this is true when applied to character… but remember… characters should never be one-dimensional. They are archetypes, not stereotypes. They should have depth, resonance, meaning. They have lived an entire lifetime up to the moment they first appear on the page – and they carry that lifetime with them.
Do your characters honor. Treat them as you would an onion, or an artichoke. Peel back the layers – and get to their hearts.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
P.S. – If you have not read it yet, check out @jeannevb’s newest Balls of Steel column. It’s a keeper.