12 October 2009

Letting Characters Characterise Themselves

So, I have a bit of a problem to confess: All my MCs sound the same. Did. Did sound the same. Before I realised, that is.

Do you ever have this problem?

It's something that can creep up on writers in two ways: either you write your books consecutively, writing just one at a time, so you never notice that your MCs sound the same; or you write books concurrently, several at a time, and the voice of one bleeds over into another.

It can also happen if you develop a habit - accidentally or deliberately - of writing about the same kind of people. When I talked about patterns in writing last week, it made me realise just how easy it is to write the same character over and over in different situations, rather than writing different characters.

I mentioned three female characters who all start out thinking they can't do whatever it is that needs doing, and then, at some point, realise they can and have to. While it's - of course - okay to use that kind of generic 'template' to structure a character's arc of development - and there are only so many ways a character can develop after all; that's what people mean when they say there are only x number of plots in the world - it's not okay to fall into the trap of making them all the same person.

How are they different? How would they all react to each other's situations? There should be differences there, even if they are subtle.

My MCs all sounded similar, at least for the major novels I was working on. This became especially obvious to me last month, when I wrote so many shorts where the MCs had great, developed and unique voices.

And in a conversation with my twin the other day, I realised why: I was trying to characterise the characters, instead of letting them do it themselves. I was shouting over top of them, telling them how they ought to be, instead of listening and letting them tell me who they were. Prime example: one of my YA MCs, Edge. She had two older sisters, one grown up and married. This is what I kept telling her (amongst other things); and as a result, her story refused to budge. It wouldn't come, and when it did, it was labourious.

But after the conversation with L, I shut up and let Edge speak for herself. She told me that, actually, she had a brother and a sister, both close in age to each other but quite a bit older than her.

I blinked in shock, and was tempted to argue - but I held my tongue, and as a result I wrote nearly 2k on her story in just the one day.

I have something else to confess: My middle sister had to have speech therapy when she was four. She couldn't talk properly - because I kept talking for her.

Turns out, I haven't changed: I just do it to my characters instead of RL people.

Maybe I should send my characters to speech therapy *grin*

Listen to your characters. They know who they are, and who they need to be. Don't try to force them to do things that aren't true to their nature - and if you listen, if you let them characterise themselves, they won't sound the same. They can't.

Have you ever had characters who sounded the same? Have you ever realised you were steering your characters in a direction they weren't supposed to go? What did you do to overcome this?

4 comments:

Scott Free said...

This is great advice. I agree, and though I generally have pretty different MCs, I often do try to dictate what they're like. I often have to read back and let them tell me who they are.
Thanks, Inky!

P.S. It is soooooo cool that you're a twin. What I wouldn't give to have a doppelganger...

Merc said...

Nice post, Inky One.

One worry I have is that, yeah, they all start sounding alike... :S Especially when I write in first person. Irreverent, snarky narrators feel "natural" for me, but I then think they all start sounding the same... *sigh*

Third is really not that much easier, because I still have a habit of falling into a comfortable "zone" or style...

;-(

I dunno if it's so much me steering them in directions or just not understanding them as characters enough to be able to find their unique voices.

Sometimes I think it's an issue of, well, they have a personality but it's not coming through and so the voice is flat or same-y or whatever.

If you find a good voice therapy for characters, let me know. :P

Lady Glamis said...

I don't think I've had characters that sound too much the same, but I understand what you're talking about here. We really do have to let our characters just LIVE on the page. I recently did a post on Lit Lab that talked about voices. One of them is yours, and one is the main character's. Sometimes I think we let our main character's voice get drowned out by our voice, and they end up sounding similar.

Inkblot said...

Scott - Lol! I'll post the details on Friday, but suffice to say, I'm not /actually/ a twin. I wish! :D

Merc - So hearing you. There's so much of a temptation to just fall into your 'comfort zone' - and sometimes I just can't tell whether a voice is working, or if I'm just 'comfort-zoning' it. Sometimes I think it's a matter of me steering - but yeah, sometimes it /is/ a matter of not knowing my characters well enough. It's such a hard balance to find!

Glam - I read that post, very good. I completely understand what you mean about everything we write having two voices - and I think the 'comfort zone' Merc mentioned is us falling into the trap of writing from our /own/ voice too much, rather than the characters'.

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