Tuesday, August 30, 2011

10 things NOT to do when building characters

I'm obsessing over characters these days. Like, what can I do to make mine more likable? What can I do to make them leap off the page? What can I do to make them memorable? So I dug up some answers. This time, the tips are from Noah Lukeman, author of THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Don't have it yet? It's amazing. Here are ten things Lukeman says we should avoid when building characters:
  1. "Switching between first and last names." If we're going to call our main character Ryan, we should stick with that. Not Ryan in paragraph one, Mr. Reynolds in another, and Hunky Beefcake in another.
  2. "The use of stock, cliche, or overly exotic names." John and Mary might be boring names (my husband John objects!), but we also want to avoid names that are so original that they're hard to read and distract from the story.
  3. "Launching into the story without stopping to establish any of the characters." Readers want to meet our main character and care about him before Hunky Beefcake rescues the aging author from the train tracks (ahem).
  4. "The presence of stock or cliche characters and/or character traits." The dumb bodybuilder, the smart nerd, etc. We can do better than that, can't we?
  5. "The introduction of too many characters at once." If there are too many hunky beefcakes thrown in at the beginning, how will the reader know which one to follow? Add those beefcakes in slowly.
  6. "Confusion over who the protagonist is." Whose story is it? Readers should know up front who they're investing their time in. (Hint: the hunky beefcake rescuing the writer)
  7. "The presence of extraneous characters." Does the guy cleaning the bathrooms at the train station matter to the story? If not, don't add him and definitely don't give him a name.
  8. "Generic character description." We want our characters to stand out, right? So let's give that aging writer who's tied to the train tracks a unique description. Maybe she wears 20's clothing, has a mole above her lip--Cindy Crawford style, and golden curls--Taylor Swift style (yes? yes.)
  9. "Characters we don't care about." Why should we care about the hunky beefcake who tries to save the aging writer? Maybe his dad said he was a loser and wasn't worth anything. Now we hope he saves the writer because hey, we want him to prove his dad wrong.
  10. "The unsympathetic protagonist." Even if he's a bad guy, he should be likable. Hunky Beefcake might be cocky, but he's willing to rumple his pristine clothes to save the writer. He can't be all bad, right?
Have I made these mistakes? Um, yes, which is why I'm reading up on the subject. How about you?

59 comments:

  1. First 5 Pages was one of the first writing books I ever read. It helped me so much and I HIGHLY recommend it to everyone.
    You picked some great things to remember, Julie. I'm in the process of developing new characters too... and trying to figure out how to make them shine. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! I particularly like your point about sticking with one name (mostly because I recently had to fix that with a character..)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like to point out exceptions. I live in Japan, where you'll call someone by their last or first name depending on your relationship. If you're going to switch a character's name, it's important to establish that John and Mr. Doe are the same person early on.

    Also, on cliche/exotic names. Stories support exotic names if they're exotic- multicultural or SFF. I think every story can support one cliche and/or exotic name. So one person named John is fine. But a whole cast of Mary's, Jane's, Steve's and Mike's doesn't work for me. Neither does a cast of Laqueesha's and Shaniqua's and Deantonio's.

    Great points. Thanks for sharing them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A really good post, Julie. I've been obsessing about my characters, too. How do I make the reader like the MC? Why should they fall in love with the guy she's in love with etc. etc? Thanks for sharing this.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Appropriate post. I find these as often as the next most common, grievous error...telling tags, which often skew the POV

    ReplyDelete
  6. Why do I get the feeling I'm going to be reading a book about a hunky beefcake rescuing a writer? LOL! I LOVE IT.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I definitely second the point about overly exotic names! That's one of my pet peeves.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've done all of those things before!! I'm so glad I read this post or I don't know how much I would have caught in my editing!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ooh, I heart Noah! Switching names was one of the first things I learned...the hard way...when I started writing seriously. I think I've learned how to give a character a 'nickname' and get the reader to relate to that name as opposed to the character's real name. It's tricky, though, and a writer has to be very careful when doing so. Great post!! I'll tweet you.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm working on a novel after 30+ years of writing nonfiction, so this is very helpful, Julie. I'd heard some of these before, some I didn't know. Thanks for sharing.
    Karen

    ReplyDelete
  11. This is a great list! One thing I definitely need to work on is generic character descriptions. In the first draft of my WIP I didn't describe my secondary characters much at all, so I need to go back and add some more details so they come alive.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Oh, I am so guilty of #1! I'm writing in the Regency era, when people have first names, last names, and titles and sometimes are known as William, Lord Waverly or the Viscount of Such and Such depending on who they are talking to. It's very tricky to stay true to the social stratification yet NOT confuse the heck out of everybody.

    Oh, and #8. All my heros look like Colin Firth in Pride & Prejudice! I wrote a blog about this once called 'A Blonde, Brunette and a Redhead' about how bloody difficult it is to differentiate between the three men in my book. http://bit.ly/awWvaW

    Loved this list! Great fun but also very noteworthy.

    Julie Johnson
    busywriting.net

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hunky beefcake...love it. LOL! These are all great tips, Julie. I'm Tweeting this for sure. :)
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

    ReplyDelete
  14. Great post, Julie! Funny, I read this book years ago--from the library--and promised to buy it for myself. And then I never did. I think I'll have to fix that!

    I wonder if the rules for exotic names differ if you're writing fantasy or science fiction? In those genres, exotic names are more expected and tolerated; but if I can't pronounce a name, it will slow down my reading (never a good thing). Suzanne Collins uses unusual names in The Hunger Games, but they're simple and easy to read (and remember). I think that's the perfect balance!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I've been obsessing over the same thing lately! Thanks for posting this, I'm going to have to check out that book.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for this great post. I am going to get a copy of the First Five Pages.

    ReplyDelete
  17. So true. Whenever I'm reading and a character is introduced I'm thinking, okay how is he/she going to tie into the story. :) Sometimes they are just unnecessary.

    ReplyDelete
  18. These are some great tips, Julie! Thanks for sharing. This sounds like a good book to add to the library.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Good checklist! I see long, complicated names in science fiction and fantasy books all the time. I tried to keep mine simple. And it took a little rewriting, but my main character finally became someone readers liked.

    ReplyDelete
  20. You all make such excellent points! And I agree with Cheryl, that Suzanne Collins did a great job of using unique but simple names. Peeta anyone?

    And Claire makes a great point about multi-cultural names. In HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET (loved that book) the author named the Japanese character Keiko, but the other main character, who was Chinese, was named Henry. Unique AND simple.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Yes, so hard. Laughing about the bathroom cleaner :)

    ReplyDelete
  22. And don't forget that character flaw! That, sympathy, and originality and you're rolling. Oh, and ambivalent attitudes to build depth.

    Best wishes everyone on the writer campaign.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I like Lukeman's book too!

    Terrific advice. I think Anne McCaffrey did a good job with fantasy names (which can get way out of control) throughout her whole Pern series. Simple to pronounce and read, but different: F'lar & Lessa come to mind :)

    ReplyDelete
  24. There is a Writer's Fairy (second cousin to the Tooth Fairy). Something is bugging me about my WIP and reading this list brought it to light. I have to ditch the toilet cleaner. He's blocking everything. (no pun intended there).
    You know what I mean. Thanks so much.

    M Beth

    ReplyDelete
  25. Great post, Julie! All important points to remember. I try to remember what's been done to death and avoid cliches like the plague<<he he, sorry, couldn't help it;)No, really, I do try to go for unique, but I remember very clearly another writer telling me he hated stumbling over weird names that he couldn't pronounce. He said it not only stalled the story, but made him feel stupid. I never want to do that to a reader! FFP is a wonderful book to reference.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Very nice compilation. I especially related to 'who's the protagonist' as my subplot is starting to take on too big a life of its own, at least at this point in time. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Great list. I'm a minimalist name person myself, and John, Mary and Jack are high on my list. Unfortunately every story I write cannot include them. Although I named a cat Brown once.

    And you'll have to let us know if the Hunky Beefcake saves the aging, yet still beautiful writer.

    ReplyDelete
  28. A great post! One to remember!

    ReplyDelete
  29. I love this book! And you broke down the 10 things not to do well. I'm going to print this out. :)

    ReplyDelete
  30. What a great list to cross-reference my manuscripts with! Thanks so much for sharing the list with us (I'll have to get the book!).

    ReplyDelete
  31. Great post with good tips. I agree with most of them, butI don't really know that I agree w/ all of these. There have been books written that wouldn't work without an unlikeable protag (Vanity Fair).

    ReplyDelete
  32. I've definitely made those mistakes in the past, everyone of them I think... ;) Thankfully I've learned tips and tricks along the way to help me develop my characters before I even start writing.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Thanks for this concise little character bit.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Thanks, Julie! I've learned more reading your post than I've learned reading some 'how-to' books! Gonna check out your link!

    ReplyDelete
  35. I'm giggling while taking notes. I think sometimes in SciFi and Fantasy it's fun to play with the out of the ordinary names.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Regarding #1, what about characters who are referred to differently by different people? And I don't mean titles vs names; during the Regency, a man's friends would call him by his last name (hence Bingley and Darcy) and those not as acquainted by his title--Mr. Darcy. But wait, there's more! Darcy has a cousin who's really more like a brother to him, and they use their Christian names. So I now have three names for my protagonist: Mr. Darcy, Darcy, and William.

    Too much, or okay because it's situational? I do have set rules I follow for each name.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Oh my gosh, I think I've been told in every book that I introduce too many characters at once. Still can't get a grip on that one.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

    ReplyDelete
  38. Some great points to take note of. Tell me though, how do you describe a POV character while you're in their POV without resorting to such cliches as the mirror or having them mentally compare themselves to someone else? I always try to find a way but seldom manage to find anything that doesn't seem forced.

    ReplyDelete
  39. All right, missy, you just touched on something that's been nagging at me these past few months, and in fact has nagged me for many months across many years across many many stories for all the time I've been a-writing.

    Here's the nag: ALL characters are important.

    Every. Last. One.

    If you ever dismiss a character as unimportant, that is you as the writer's fault for not being more sympa/empathetic.

    This point was hammered home to me recently when I read Vonnegut's Breakfast for Champions.

    I always sensed that everyone was equally important, but V pointed this out in B&W and even drew a human anus to make his point.

    That's true. Read the book if you don't believe me.

    Your #7 and #9 are the two that got me -- extraneous and non-care-abouts.

    There is no such thing as non-characters in your story, anymore than there is such a thing in real life.

    We all have agendas. We are all important. We are all meaningful, and if you forget that point you'll alienate your reader who just happens to be a cocktail waitress at a dive bar that you as a high-pedestal author do not think is important.

    You see the point, yes? You see the left hook in that comment?

    Give your characters respect. Give them your love. You are their God and Creator and Savior.

    If they pop up, even tangentially, they are your creation and deserve your respect and affection.

    Or murder them. Someone else said that, too, murder your darlings.

    But they're your darlings. Nothing unimportant about them, so lay them on the slab and bleed them, but cry about it when you do.


    - Eric

    ReplyDelete
  40. PS, I liked this post so much, Julie, that I posted it on my site. You'd better go defend yourself! ;)

    One of my favorite topics: Characters.

    - Eric

    ReplyDelete
  41. Woo hoo! Eric! Ok, I think the point Noah Lukeman was trying to make (puts on Noah Lukeman hat) is that each character IS important if they're serving a purpose. If not, adios! Like the guy cleaning the train station bathrooms. No purpose in THIS story. In another story? Maybe he's the spy who gathers important information to save the US from another terrorist attack. THEN he's important. At least that's what I've learned.

    But your points are well taken!

    ReplyDelete
  42. If I read "hunky beefcake" one more time, I'm tossing this cold glass of water on you! Lol! Not really; it's wine, and far too precious for me to waste.

    You cracked me up with that post, Julie.

    Now, who is this aging author you keep referring to? That was very sweet of you to think of her while you wrote your post...

    -Jimmy

    ReplyDelete
  43. Jimmy...save the wine...I went swimming!

    ReplyDelete
  44. Sounds like a good book! So...what I'm getting out of this is, no matter what, don't forget the hunky beefcake? *adds to checklist*

    ReplyDelete
  45. No.3 is a mistake I think everybody does. I did it for sure. Then stopped and went back at it.

    ReplyDelete
  46. Oh, good awesome stuff here! *runs off to add hunky beefcake to novel* Thanks for sharing this great info. :)

    ReplyDelete
  47. Ah, characters. XD

    I might need to work on some of these... *sigh* Great post, though, lol. ^^

    ReplyDelete
  48. Very cool list... Got to keep them in mind when NaNo comes around this year!

    ReplyDelete
  49. That was great! Thanks for the reminders. The 'hunky beefcake' bit actually made me laugh out loud right in the middle of the library because it caught me so off-guard. :-D

    ReplyDelete
  50. Oh, Julie, thanks for all that. I'm starting a new book this month and this really helps. And I just read your True Grit post, too, and it was excellent, as well.

    (I've been gone on hiatus for over 2 weeks so I'm behind in my blog reading duties.)

    ReplyDelete
  51. all good stuff! And I"m sure you've seen this Writer's Digest article on characters: http://bit.ly/pbOyHg

    best! :o) <3

    ReplyDelete
  52. Congrats! You have received an award on my blog. Stop by to claim it.

    ReplyDelete
  53. Great post, Julie. I especially second the tip on the exotic names. If I can't pronounce the name in my head, I'll stop and be annoyed whenever it comes up--and it completely removes me from the story.

    ReplyDelete
  54. I laughed every time you said "Hunky Beefcake". ROFL! I'm totally going to start calling my husband that. :D

    The First Five Pages sounds like a great book. I will check it out, STAT.

    Something that has stuck with me from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, is the three dimensions of character. 1st=what they show to the world, 2nd=the "why" behind it, and 3rd=who they really are on the inside, which is shown through their choices/actions.

    This relates to #10 from your post. Hunky Beefcake (lol) might show himself to the world one way, which can make him seem like a jerk, but when he rumples his fab outfit to save the writer we see who he really is on the inside. Throw his inner demons into the mix (dimension #2) and we get a real person.

    ReplyDelete
  55. I've seen most (maybe all) of these problems in critiques of first novels. And I may have made a few of them myself. *coughs*

    Great reminders! And after he saves you, could he at least wave a little in my direction? :)
    erica

    ReplyDelete