When I was a junior in high school, I dated my trombone section leader in marching band. (Yes, I was a band nerd). He was a fan of Terry Goodkind’s books and was in the process of writing his own set of novels. He had finished several—bound together in white binders, written with pencil on notebook paper in tiny handwriting.
They were epic adventure novels, a cross between fantasy and the Bible (his other favorite book). Like a good girlfriend, I read them all. We were away on a camping and white water rafting trip with his church and he asked me my honest opinion. I remember sitting on a picnic bench in the twilit forest near the New River, spewing my “honest opinion.”
Obviously, we broke up. Not that moment, but eventually we broke up because I “lacked compassion.”
His novels were bad. Okay, they weren’t terrible—they had some measure of cohesiveness and line, but they lacked… a lot. Even then—over ten years ago—I had some fairly sound advice for helping him make his novels better.
Lessons from my ex’s novels
Writer’s Disorder #4: Your characters are all the same.
I’m not talking about looks or shared quest. In my ex’s novel, all the good guys had essentially the same personality: his. Even though his characters were based on his own friends, they failed to have a personality of their own. Each one reacted the same to any given problem. Any effort he made to have the characters act differently came off as fake or contrived.
They shared another trait: dialogue styles. Every character phrased their sentences the same way, used the same exclamatory remarks, and had the same belief about curse words (that they were never to be used!)
Even for writers who have a tough time putting themselves into others’ shoes, you can easily draw inspiration from the world around you and the “characters” that have come into your life.
Everyone knows people who are overly verbose, people who collect friends, people who are always awkward, people who make you wonder what they are thinking, and so on. Each character would act differently just as the people in your life do.
I like to compare my characters to people I know. When I write their dialoge, I constantly ask myself “Is this something that ______ would say if they were having a conversation with me?”
Another exercise to develop individual character traits is to write extensive backstories on all the characters. How many siblings do they have? Were they poor or rich growing up? How did their childhood shape who they are today? Did they go through any trauma that motivates them to be a certain way?
It’s time-consuming, true, but it will really pay off in the long run.
Another fanastic exercise that I love to do when writing characters is to choose a Myers-Briggs type for them.
For those of you unfamiliar with MBTI, as a writer, you should familiarize yourself with this wonderful tool. Myers-Briggs is a system of categorizing personalities. There are 4 sets of qualities that one can fall under one side or the other.
Introverted vs. Extroverted
Sensing vs. Intuitive
Feeling vs. Thinking
Judging vs. Perceiving.
For those wondering, I’m an INFJ (and proud of it!). There are a total of 16 types, and each type processes information differently, communicates differently, and has a different perception of the world. Here’s a link to get you started, but I do plan on writing a more in-depth study of Myers-Briggs types in a few weeks.
Part 2 coming tomorrow!