This a blast from the past when I was in the midst of writing "The Liars," which is out this month!
I was in the middle of writing the story, and it was missing something. (If you have
written for any length of time, this may sound like a familiar
I figured it out eventually: it was being too
well-behaved. Following to the outline, characters doing what they were
supposed to do - for perfectly good reasons, mind you, but they were
awfully obedient. Too obedient.
They needed personality.
course, this will surprise no one. Certainly characters need
personality! But what I needed from my characters - what was missing -
was not so much backstory and general motives but a sense of each one as
a force in the story.
is what I mean. A character who is a force in the story will be a force
for good, or evil, or for chaos, or a force for goofiness, or something
like that. When that character walks into a room, you immediately say,
"Okay, now things are going to get _____" (Fill in the blank with good,
evil, chaotic, goofy.)
I picked the following quote up from Jamie Todd Rubin's website where he recently reviewed a book by George R. R. Martin:
"Another remarkable aspect of A Clash of Kings–for
me at least–is that the characters are by now so well developed that
as a reader, I felt like I knew them and could guess their reactions
to various events."
This is something like what I mean. Because
you know what kind of person they are, and what they'll do in a certain
situation, they have more dimension. This can be big stuff, like mental
illness (for my character Nekantor who is a force for order, and not in
a good way) or heavy backstory. It can also be little stuff, like some
detail of their self-image that affects their interactions.
give you the example of the characters I was working with: Adrian
Preston and his wife, Qing Preston. Both are linguists. Both are
accustomed to working with aliens and taking them seriously. So far so
good. But they weren't different enough, and they weren't forces. So I
decided to go further with Qing's Chinese background and give her a
Chinese nickname for her husband. I looked around on the internet and
came up with Big Bear (this is of course the translation). Then I
suddenly realized that Adrian should be a genuinely big guy - and
self-conscious about it. But then I decided he couldn't be so
self-conscious that he was timid. More playful. And from there I got to
the fact that each one of them loves being a linguist, but for different
reasons. For him, language and culture are all fun, never work, and he
just can't get enough. For her, language and culture are such serious
business that she devotes herself entirely. Suddenly I saw both how they
would be able to work toward the same goal and how they would encounter
conflict along the way. They would be able to do what I needed, but
they would have personality, and each one would have a different form of
influence on the story.
All of a sudden I really wanted to go write this thing.
It's something to think about if you ever feel your characters aren't quite coming to life.
Look for "The Liars," now in the October issue of Analog!