These two veteran editors/writers don't sugar coat anything.
I learned a lot from this book about writing. Now, I am rereading their advice on character creation and have rediscovered some helpful and yes, harsh advice. These are characterizations to avoid from the book, which could also be called
the most forgettable and nauseating characters ever:
1. None of the characters have to work for a living.
2. All of the characters are celibate.
3. The characters, even the protagonists, have sock puppet personas.
4. Character descriptions sound as if they are being read from police reports.
5. Characters are described while looking in a mirror or looking at a photo of themselves.
6. Characters are described as looking like celebrities.
7. Too much emphasis is put on describing the clothes characters are wearing. (The authors call this, "The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special.")
Guilty As Charged
Yikes! I know I am guilty of committing at least four of the above mistakes (that I'll readily admit to in public). It is especially hard at first, not to describe characters like suspects in a criminal investigation. "She was a pretty, slender blonde around average height for a woman." "He was tall with green eyes and brown hair."
And it is also so tempting to write, "She was as reckless as Lindsay Lohan." Or, "He looked like a young Sean Connery." If you really want to make your characters look and act like certain celebrities do, don't be lazy about it. Describe them so adeptly that your readers come to the conclusion, "She's just like Drew Barrymore," by themselves!
When I read Mittelmark and Newman's advice on not describing characters while having them promenade in front of a mirror, I sighed. This writing thing is just not that easy! I will persevere, though, because the rewards of writing a good novel with some unforgettable characters far out-weigh the growing pains it takes to produce them. How about you?
From the innocent and otherworldly Edward Scissorhands to the scandalous pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp has masterfully brought several unique characters to life. I would love to have created any one of them for him to portray. How many Johnny Depp movies and characters can you recall? Take a fun break with this trivia quiz to find out. Spoiler Alert: The answers follow immediately after the questions.
1. In 1984, a young Johnny Depp plays the role of Glen Lantz, the boyfriend of this movie’s heroine. He is killed by a vicious child murderer who attacks while victims sleep. What is the title of the movie?
2. In Platoon (1986), Johnny Depp plays Private Gator Lerner. What is his role in the platoon?
3. What is the title of the 1990 movie in which Depp’s character is an ageless artificial boy with strange appendages for hands and which famous actor plays his inventor?
4. In the thriller Nick Of Time (1995), Depp plays a widowed accountant who is forced to try to assassinate California’s governor. How do the criminal masterminds convince him to go along with the plot?
5. Johnny Depp plays skittish police constable Ichabod Crane in Sleepy
Hollow (1999). Who is his foe in the movie and which actor plays him?
Night Falls (2000) is a film starring Johnny Depp based on a true story about the homosexual poet/novelist, Reinaldo Arenas. Where is Arenas from?
7. Johnny Depp first plays the charismatic scoundrel, Captain Jack Sparrow for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). On what real life person does he base his portrayal of this now famous pirate character?
8. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Depp plays Willy Wonka, an eccentric candy factory owner who is estranged from his father. What is his father’s profession?
9. In The
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Johnny Depp’s character is a transformation of the character Tony. Tony is initially played by what famous actor who died while the movie was being filmed?
10. What is the title of the 2010 comedic romantic drama in which Johnny Depp plays a lovelorn American tourist in France who becomes tangled in the web of his seductive costar, Angelina Jolie?
1. The title of the 1984 movie in which Johnny Depp’s character is killed by a child murderer is A Nightmare on Elm Street.
2. Private Lerner’s job is to translate Vietnamese for the platoon.
3. The title of the 1990 movie is Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price plays the inventor who creates Edward.
4. The criminal masterminds who want California’s governor killed have kidnapped the accountant’s daughter.
5. The Headless Horseman is Ichabod Crane’s foe. He is played by Christopher Walken.
6. Reinaldo Arenas is from Cuba.
7. Johnny Depp says Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards, is the inspiration for his quirky portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow.
8. Willy Wonka’s father is a dentist who forbade Willy to eat candy while growing up.
9. Tony is initially played by Heath Ledger who died while The
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was being filmed.
10. The title of this 2010 movie is The Tourist.
If you answered all ten trivia questions about Johnny Depp’s movie roles correctly, congratulations! You are a true fan of this gifted, unconventional actor and his unusual but always entertaining body of work. And a true fan of unforgettable characters!
In her essay, Dr. Hinze explained that your characters have to "grow and change" as they experience life's conflicts. Therefore, you must describe and evolve their spiritual and emotional sides along with their physical attributes. "Everything about them--including their speech patterns, the way they dress, their body language--tells the reader who these story people are and proves they are both universal and unique. To be unforgettable, a story person must be both."
Fair Enough. Our characters must be "universal and unique." What exactly does this mean? Let's delve further into Dr. Hinze's essay. She defines universal traits as those traits common to humans that are typically based on emotions. "…love, hate, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, fear, grief, and/or guilt...These are our universal traits." Unique traits are a bit harder to pin down.
Dr. Hinze defines unique traits as "Convictions, ethics, beliefs, social mores--all of those traits that come as a result of our personal histories, backgrounds, and experiences. Those traits that mold our unique characters. Force us to take a stand, to see where on the fence we sit."
Because all of us have universal and unique characteristics and all of us are far from being perfect, the characters we create shouldn't be perfect either. Perfect characters are not only unbelievable (void of the internal and external conflicts that are the essence of three-dimensional characters). Perfect characters are boring, Dr. Hinze warns.
Thus, her recipe for creating unforgettable characters:
"Find the character's Achilles' heel--their greatest fear or weakness or
vulnerability. That's the character's internal conflict. Then stomp it. That's external conflict in the book. The stomping is your plot."
What excellent food for thought! The rest of Dr. Hinze's essay
explains her techniques for fleshing out unforgettable characters. If you've learned as much as I have in these two blog posts, I highly recommend you read the whole essay.
Dr. Hinze's premise in her essay is this: If you know your characters well
enough--better than yourself, even-- then the plot of your book will enfold as you reveal each character's details. This happens because these characters have certain personality traits; certain profiles; that cause them to interact with the world as only they could.
But how much detail is needed to make your fictional characters
come alive? How much detail is truly enough to truly influence the plot of your book? Dr. Hinze uses the analogy that a novel is like a three-legged stool, where character, plot and setting represent the three legs. Under-developed characters cause the stool to wobble. Characters should be so believable that if you change one thing about them, their destiny and hence the course of the novel changes. That seems like a tall order, doesn't it? Dr. Hinze doesn't believe it should be.
Dr. Hinze explains that readers expect your characters to
experience the conflicts of life, which can never be easy. They have to "grow and change" as they experience these conflicts. Therefore, you must describe and evolve their spiritual and emotional sides along with their physical attributes.
As Dr. Hinze puts it: "Everything about them--including their
speech patterns, the way they dress, their body language--tells the reader who these story people are and proves they are both universal and unique. To be unforgettable, a story person must be both."
The rest of her essay explains in fascinating detail her definitions of both universal and unique character traits and how to create them. She even uses a great self-example. She was once a meek blonde. She became a fiery red head to gain the self-confidence needed to end a bad marriage
and stand up to her family. If you don't have time to read the essay, we'll be exploring more of it here in the next post.
By Danielle Olivia Tefft
About two years ago, I wrote a cozy little mystery novel. The plot was fairly good but I knew the characters were like one-dimensional paper dolls. My mystery novel might have a chance if my characters were more complex and had more flaws. You know, like in real life. I have a basic idea of what makes an unforgettable fictional character. I think people love complex, flawed characters. Why? Because nobody is perfect. Human perfection in writing can come across as boring and artificial. Perfectly good characters are nice in children's books but not so much in those for adults. What I have found is that it is very challenging coming up with believable characters for an adult audience, never mind making these characters unforgettable.
Fiction writers with great novels manage to come up with incredible, insanely flawed, beyond-therapy characters. When people read about these characters, they come alive and they can never forget them. How do these writers develop such believable and memorable characters? Do they all have first-hand experience with unpredictable, unreliable, spontaneous crackpots and write about these crazies that they’ve met in their lives? Why aren't they afraid of being sued for character defamation if that is the case? Or, are these writers just great observers of human nature, capable of conjuring up amazing amalgamations of the most flawed individuals in society?
Whatever the secrets are to coming up with believable and unforgettable characters, I aim to search them out. I want to be part of that "Writers with Unforgettable Characters" club. Don't you? Please feel free to join me in this weekly blog as we explore the advice and writing of those trail blazers in character development that have gone before us. I hope it will be an interesting and informative journey!
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