A character is more than just Bob who lives in a little Northern town and works at the local mill. Bob is who he is, Bob reacts how he reacts, Bob goes and does and says what he does, all because of who he is and what his life is like and what his history is and what his situation is. Tony might live in that same little Northern town and work at the same local mill, but if these two characters were real people and you followed them around for a few days, you would see that they were nothing alike, not inside.
So often when I read the work of new writers, I spot Jane Doe and John Smith over and over again in the writing. It seems every character in the story is the same person. Sure, they have different names, different jobs, lives, are different ages, but they all talk the same, think the same act and react the same. In real life, this doesn’t happen, unless the Pod people show up.
What can you do to keep Jane Does and John Smith from taking over your story?
It’s really easy…okay…it’s kind of easy. It just takes a little work. A little time and effort spent on each character, even that little walk through character that is only going to pop up now and again. This work starts with just thinking about who you want and need a character to be. Then you dig a little deeper. Maybe you do this by just typing in information you think up about him or her, maybe you fill in a character chart on the character or do some kind character interview, or maybe even a mixture of it all. What ever it is, you need to use what tools work for you to help you make those walking bones become flesh and blood. The more important a character is to your story, all the better you should know that character, no matter if she is the heroine or the villain.
Take Bob and Tony.
Bob was born in Louisiana and raised on a small farm. His father was tough and seldom fair. They were poor, and Bob learned to work hard at an early age. As hard as his father could be, he was always gentle and respectful with women. Bob’s mom worked hard on the farm too, because it was a small family farm and it took them all working hard to keep things going, but his father cared for her and protected her, and worked to please her as much as he could.
When Bob was nineteen, they lost the family farm. When his family moved to town and his father took a good job there, Bob felt he was needed any more and for the first time in his life, decided to put his own wants first. He traveled and moved from job to job. Until he landed and settled in that small Northern town where he found a job he loved and people who made him feel welcome. He even liked the weather.
When Bob speaks, you’ll hear his southern drawl. Bob’s family farm raised both sugarcane and milk cows. He knows a lot about both. He isn’t scared of hard work and grew up to be a pretty tough man himself, though unlike his father, he bends over backwards to be fair because he got the wrong end of fair too many times. His views of women and marriage came from his family. He doesn’t plan on divorce and thinks women are strong but need to be cared for. He’s had two serious girlfriends, but things didn’t work out. He’s still looking for the woman he’s going to marry.
Bob also likes spicy foods, strong whiskey but doesn’t drink often, he doesn’t cook anything that takes more than a couple of steps or the pushing of a microwave button, he loves dogs, in fact, he loves all animals and doesn’t hunt, even though he had done so with his father often to put food on the table. Bob likes horror moved, motorbikes, and believe it or not, the smell of flowers because his mother used to almost always keep a bunch of some kind of flowers on the table in the kitchen. The smell of flowers reminds him of her.
Tony grew up one town over from where he works at the mill. His mom was on her third marriage by the time he was ten, but at least Mr. Third had money and staying power. Mr. Third gave in to Tony’s mom anytime she shed a few tears, and she often laughed about what an easy touch he was. The man wasn’t too bad of a stepfather though, and spent time with Tony, took him on out of state hunting and fishing trips each summer.
Tony fits in well with a lot of the people in town. He’s kin to some of them. His stepfather got him the job at the mill. Tony knows this is about his last chance. Mr. Third paid for college….two of them….but Tony ended up flunking out of one and getting kicked out of the other. Mr. Third got him a few jobs during and after, but Tony likes free time a lot better than working.
This time though, his mom has put her foot down. There will be no more schooling, no more handouts, no more anything. Tony will do the best he can at this job and take care of himself, or live on the streets. She no longer cares and isn’t going to see any more money wasted on him.
Tony does a good job at work, but doesn’t do one more thing than he has to, or spend one minute longer there than he has to. He loves to spend his nights off at one of the local bars. He likes junk food better than meals, and his favorite drink anytime of year is ice-cold beer. He’s experimented with some drugs, but nothing too heavy or too often. He dates a lot, but never the same woman for very long. He doesn’t really trust women. They all seem to remind him too much of his mom. It doesn’t take them long to start trying to find out how much he earns and what he owns. Anytime things don’t go their way, they are usually pretty quick to turn on the tears or the guilt. He just doesn’t need the hassle.
He likes war movies and comedies, video and computer games, and spends a lot of time on line.
See, two guys, same age, live in the same town, work at the same job, but if neither would do the same thing for fun or eat the same thing as a favorite, or even react to a woman the same way.
That’s why when you write a story filled with Jane Doe’s and John Smith’s, people talk about cardboard cutouts. If someone reads a chapter of your story and meets three characters in that chapter, each of those characters should be, well, be a character.
If they were talking together, their speech would be a little different. One might have an accent, one might be bad about repeating things, one might curse, another might always have some kind of smart comeback. If someone has a lot of college behind them, they will probably use different words and ways of saying things than someone who didn’t even finish high school. A nurse might compare things to some medical situation, like if someone blushed she might say that the person’s face was as red as if she were burning up with a fever. A Louisiana cook might compare a blush to being as red as a fresh boiled crawfish.
If these characters went out for a meal together, they wouldn’t each order a taco with extra hot sauce and beer in a bottle—unless that was all they could buy there or all they could afford. Even then, they wouldn’t all request extra hot sauce.
Along that same line, they would each pick a different fun evening, a different kind of movie, ect… Even if they all went to the same place or the same movie, they would each act and react differently.
Different is all you have to remember. We are all different, even twins. I have a good friend who has a twin sister. I can’t tell them apart by looking unless it’s one of those times when they aren’t wearing close to the same hairstyle. And yet, if I see one of them in a flower shop, I know which one it is, because the other one doesn’t care for plants at all. If I talk to one of them for a moment, after just a couple of sentences, I know which one I’m speaking too. When we were in high school I could even tell sometimes just by what clothes one was wearing or what kind of notebook one carried. One liked short skirts, one jeans. One liked notebooks with animals on it, and one seemed to always have a solid colored notebook with drawings all over the cover that she did while sitting in class.
So if a reader picks your story, when she meets each character, even if their names aren’t used in a section, just by speech, action, taste and style, they should be able to tell which character is which. And if you know your characters well enough, you should be able to pull that off with ease.
It just takes a lot of work beforehand to make it that easy later.
If you'd like to try one, you can find a free character chart on my website at... http://www.charlottedillon.com/CharacterChart.html