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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Q&A: Boring characters?

A writer asked me this question:

I recently started writing a novel based off a couple friends and I wondering what would happen if we got thrust into a messy world of insane, chaotic, and anything considered un- or supernatural events.  I have already done a bit of tweaking to one character to make her a bit more agressive and aloof, but two other main character (out of four) are rather shy.  In real life, they don't talk much, and while they have come out of their shells quite a bit in the years I have known them, I doubt they'd ever be the type of people to rush head first into a life-or-death fight that could change the fate of the world you see in just about evrry novel on the shelves.  My question is, is it a bad idea to have them in the story?  I think with the dynamic our little group has it would be very interesting as characters, but I don't want them to be critiscized as boring or unoriginal.

My feeling is that all characters, whether main or secondary, should have their own distinct personality and backstory to go with it. They should also be somehow indispensable to the plot of your story.

Recently my editor asked me to do hero and heroine’s journey worksheets for a book I was going to write in order to help me fix some plotting and pacing problems. The exercise was very useful because I was able to fix some pacing problems I didn’t realize I’d had, and I also was able to better solidify the personalities of some of my secondary characters.

I didn’t realize this, but I hadn’t yet picked distinct personalities for some characters who had rather important supporting roles in the story. I always use 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt and pick archetypes for my main characters, although I will often turn those archetypes on their heads so that they aren’t cliche. However, I hadn’t picked archetypes for my secondary characters, but I was forced to when doing the hero and heroine’s journey worksheets for my main characters.

In picking archetypes, the secondary characters became richer and more distinct from each other and the main characters. The secondary characters also suddenly developed stronger backstories to explain how they became the people they are in my novel.

So bottom line: Make each of your characters, whether main or secondary, have very distinct personalities that make each one very different from the other. If you have two characters who are too similar, then combine them into one character. Each character in your novel needs to fulfill a necessary role and have a personality that distinguishes them from the others--otherwise, the characters become a muddle of names who are just walking around your story world without function.

Once you start to make sure each character is unique, you’ll find them developing interesting personality traits and backstories to make them even more integral to your plot.

Lastly, and the most important writing advice I always give, is to write what’s in your gut. It’s YOUR story. Listen to your instincts and write what you feel would make it a story that you want to read.

Note: For those interested in the hero and heroine’s journey worksheets I used: for the Heroine’s Journey, I just released a Heroine’s Journey worksheet which is exactly the one I used, although with more description and explanation, as well as examples. For the Hero’s Journey, I used Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey and adapted it to a worksheet. I usually can only do these worksheets after I’ve figured out the main plot turning points in the storyline, including the 3 disasters and ending.

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