August 05, 2008
Daily Blog 6: What a Character!
Characters are what make a story enjoyable or readable, no matter what the genre. Whatever the type of book, if people don't like or care about the characters, they won't read any further.
While some may argue that mysteries are plot driven - that is, the goal of the book is to solve the mystery or crime, that solution centers on the skills - or lack of them - of the main character, whether amateur sleuth, detective or gumshoe. The character's goal is to solve the mystery, close the case, or find the missing person or object. And hopefully they will do it in a way that will make the reader want to come along for the journey.
Make them Memorable
Whether it's the selfishness of Scarlett O'Hara or the budding wizardry of Harry Potter, the character should have something about them that is memorable. Maybe it's their penchant for penny candy, or their habit for stepping over dead bodies like Jessica Fletcher.
Maybe it's the way book-loving Lita, Sam's best friend in Searching For A Starry Night, A Miniature Art Mystery, likes to read and work on stories, or her taste for banana Laffy Taffy candy. Or maybe it's the goofy things that Petey the Dachshund does, like try to dig another hole, or Sam's knowledge of costume jewelry because of her mom's collection.
Whatever the character's "quirk" or identifier, be it a favorite candy, unique clothing, or other habits, those are the things that make a character seem real.
"Characters should never be based on other characters you've read about; that's when they become clichés," says Betty Webb, author of DESERT CUT. "Give every single character unique pain, and unique dreams."
She does that by giving her characters a unique past. Her P.I. Lena Jones, who was abandoned as a child and found bleeding from a gunshot wound, awakens from a coma with no memory of her past, or who shot her. She continues to search for her birth parents and try to uncover her abusive background while hunting for killers and missing children.
"The best thing a writer can and should do in characterization is to give characters a consistent personality so that their behavior becomes predictable," adds Austin Camacho, author of DAMAGED GOODS. "But to make characters memorable they must have common characteristics to make them familiar and recognizable, AND unusual traits to make them memorable."
Prompt a second look
Camacho opted to make his character, private detective Hannibal Jones a "serious coffee drinker," an identifiable trait to many. Jones becomes more memorable, not because of his habit, but because of his appearance - he's a Black man with less common hazel eyes and a style all his own. "He wears a particular 'uniform' when he is working (black Oakley sunglasses and gloves) which certainly make him stand out and hopefully makes the reader curious," he says. "I leak the reason for his attire in small bits as time passes."
Maryann Miller, author of One Small Victory, agreed that uniqueness is a must when developing a character. When describing her character, Chief Gonzales, she chose to play against stereotype - and gave him a few notable differences.
"That is one of the things I hate to see in characterizations - playing to type," she says. " Gonzales is tall, thin, hates Mexican food and is a Buddhist. He also works the NY Times crossword puzzle in ink, which is a constant source of irritation to the detectives under him. I also worked on his dialogue to make it more like proper English, which contrasts to the rural Texas slang of some of the detectives."
** Your Turn: What did you do to make your characters unique? Or what is the most memorable thing about a character that stuck with you in a book you read? Please share the book name and author.