Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Keeping Characters In-Character
Hey all, Cheryl here with writing lessons I learned from Disneyworld. LOL! Disney is filled with oodles of diverse, interesting characters. You see them in cartoons, books, movies and even at Disney parks. While watching some Disney cast members in their various costumes, I was intrigued at how well they stayed in-character, not only for children but for adults.
Speaking of, a grown woman (not me!) waited in line for an hour to get her picture taken with the Disney character Aladdin who is Jasmine's hero. When the woman hugged Aladdin, the cast member playing Jasmine tilted her head and wiggled her nose snobbishly at the woman behind her back. All the children in line giggled.
I laughed too because what the girl was doing was staying in-character. Making a pretend jealous face and twisting her nose and sniffing dramatically at the woman getting too close to her man is exactly what the on-screen Jasmine probably would have done. See this reference to Jasmine on Wikipedia: Princess Jasmine & Aladdin It struck me then, and as I continued to study cast members as they acted out their characters at every park we visited, how well the cast members must need to know their particular character in order to do their job and make the children believe they are the real character. I have a nephew who is and was a few different characters at Disney and he has to step in and out of character throughout the day, depending on which show he's participating in that day.
I thought about contest score sheets and recalled how some judges mentioned things like, "I don't think your heroine would react this way...it seems out of character for her." At first I didn't know what they meant, but after my character-development skills improved I understood that for the most part, writers need to keep their characters consistent.
*There are times when it's okay to have a character step out of character, but those times must be intentional and for the purpose of showing either internal conflict or character growth or epiphany. Donald Maass talks about this some when he has workshop attendees write the number one thing their heroes would NEVER do...then have the attendees write a scene that puts that character in the direct situation to HAVE to do that one thing they said or thought they'd never do. *
But for the purpose of this post, my intent is to encourage you to KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS WELL ENOUGH TO KNOW if they are remaining in-character or not. In other words, if you've made your hero out to be a former Military Special Operative who served two tours-of-active-war-duty in Iraq, then it would be hard for your readers to swallow that an inexperienced, sloppy, bone-thin, knobby-kneed teen truant could knock the rock-solid guy over fleeing detention.
Likewise, it would be out-of-character for a heroine who is an infection-control nurse educator to walk out of a bathroom without washing her hands. Yes, some could argue that could be a quirk...but it honestly would look more like sloppy character development. My point with that is, it's okay to have quirks (A very tall Asian hero who hates Asian cuisine as in Ready-Made Family) that defy stereotypes, but don't give them quirks that will only serve to weaken their character or make them look inconsistent.
I recently critiqued a (stellar) chapter that contained a kick-butt heroine. This character REALLY impressed me as did the writer who created her. This book isn't yet published but the heroine is SO strong and SO well-developed, I really feel the heroine alone could sell the book. BUT, there was this one tiny instance where the heroine missed an investigation detail that I didn't think she would because of how spot-on instinctively and thorough of an investigator the author had made her out to be up to that point. If the author had made her less detail-oriented or not as sharp, or a week sleep deprived or something, I might have been able to suspend my disbelief for a moment to consider that the heroine might have missed the detail or forgot to check. But the author so well developed her as a stellar detective, I kept getting snagged on that one part. I suggested to the author that I really can't see her heroine missing something that significant. Yet I sensed the author needed that detail to be left unfound. But in my opinion, it severely weakened the heroine's character to have it be unfound due to her not thinking to check something so obvious. So, if you do something like this, be sure to properly justify or motivate the character's actions in that moment.
I'm sure the author will either justify how the officer missed the observation or she will figure a way to rework that aspect so that the detail gets hidden another way besides officer-fault or lack of checking. By the way, this author is a Seekerville frequenter and I am VERY excited over her writing. As I said, her heroine was one of the strongest I have read in any book lately...published or not and I am VERY picky on characters being likable. It takes a lot to impress me character-wise and this author sure did. I hope by now she knows who she is and I have total faith in her ability to alter that tiny aspect so as not to forsake character for the sake of plot. I also think that once published, her heroine will be very memorable to readers and for good reason.
If you get contest feedback that something feels "contrived" yet the plot point surrounding the part they've flagged is completely sound and believable, then the trouble may rise from the fact that you had your character react or act or do or say or think something that contradicts who you've made them out to be so far. I hope this makes sense.
I'm always surprised at how many things I've heard from contest judges that I then hear from my editors too. One of my last revision notes contained an editorial note that mentioned something about how the heroine or hero did something that seemed off or out of character. So many of the scoring elements on those contest sheets for unpublished authors have been developed by authors who have worked with many different editors and authors who have experience working with editorial teams. That might be something to keep in mind as you go through your next score sheet or comment sheet. The only reason I was able to detect a character-inconsistency in the (stellar!) Seekervillain's work that I mentioned earlier was because I got and get called out on it too and have learned by my own mistakes to pick up on it.
Back to Disney characters: we visited a Disney eatery where Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet came out to greet each guest dining. When Tigger got to our table, he stood behind my youngest, put his hands under her arms and proceeded to bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce-bounce with her all over the restaurant. It was hilarious and riotously fun. The person playing Tigger seemed to have trampolines for shoes...I'm not kidding, that's how lively and bouncy he was. Then comes Eeyore and when a child tried to hug him, he put his head down and made embarrassed gestures. If you know the book and cartoon personalities of these characters, you know that Eeyore is shy with a low self-esteem and tends to be somewhat of a pessimist. The four people inside those costumes KNEW their characters and literally became them, acting them out.
To an extent, we need to be so familiar with our characters that it's like we don them like a costume that we crawl inside of and become them for a time while they're on-duty in our stories. In order to keep our characters in-character, we need to whole-heartedly know them, inside and out. You will always learn more about your character as your story unfolds, but whether you get to know your character before or during the writing of your book, you'll have to do less tweaking with regard to their consistency than if you figure them out after you've written the book.
I've jabbered enough. Your turn. I'd love to know some ways that you keep your characters in-character.
And if you're really brave, share three aspects of your character that will remain constant throughout the book.
Lastly, if you have found an inconsistency lately in one of your characters or any character for that matter, don't mention the book or the author, just the situation and how you felt that the character stepped out-of-character in that moment and why.
Okay, enough from me...talk to me about characters you have read or watched or written lately that did or said or thought in a manner that you felt went against the grain of who the author, creator, writer or producer made them to be. Talk away!
Thanks for coming by today even if you're like Eeyore and too shy to comment. :-)