Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Exploring Personality: Part One -- "Who Am I?"

"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."
Oscar Wilde

The search for self is central to the human condition. Selfhood is our first great struggle in life. Differentiation. "Who am I?" "Why am I?" I am not just an extension of my mother and/or my father. Okay, well, after potty training, the struggle to establish an independent identity, to become "me," is our first great obstacle in life. Some people, perhaps most people, as Oscar Wilde says, never become "I;" they remain, in some form or another, "we" and "us."

Actually, that's a true thing that most people never really become themselves, but we'll get to that and the research around it later in this series. However, it is that thing, that thing where people are mostly other people that has always struck me about the Bible's use of the term "sheep" in its description of humanity. But I digress...

The issue for writers in all of this is not that most people are other people, it's that most characters are other people, namely the writers. Mostly, the characters that writers write are just... themselves. This becomes especially true of first person. No matter what you say or how much you protest, it just lends itself to it. This is why most first person narratives sound so much the same, they are characters that are extensions of the authors who are like most other people.

But it's not exactly fair to pick on first person exclusively as there are plenty of third person stories with completely bland and same characters. For instance, all of the characters in Madeleine L'Engle's Time books act identically virtually all of the time. The only real difference is Meg's insecurity about how she looks, etc, and that is only in A Wrinkle in Time. After that book, she falls into pattern with everyone else and their completely rational way of speaking. If you remove the speech tags from their dialogue, there would be almost no way to tell the characters apart. [Yes, I'm picking on L'Engle because I'm waist deep in her series, right now, but I could give plenty of other examples.]

The thing that makes books great is great characters. Characters that are completely themselves. Characters about whom you cannot say, "Well, this character is just like this other character." Great characters can make a weak plot shine. In fact, David Eddings, in The Belgariad, purposefully uses the most cliche fantasy plot arc possible, but his characters are extraordinary, which makes the series one of the best fantasy yarns I've ever read. Each character was an individual with its own quirks. However, in his later writing, all of his characters merged into just one character with different names, so much so that it didn't matter what name you attached to any given piece of dialogue. All of the characters were busy being the "clever one."

When I think of books I've really enjoyed, it very often focuses on having enjoyed specific characters. Like Tom Sawyer. The book is nothing without the character of Tom, possibly the greatest conman character ever created. Tom gets himself into trouble. A lot. And so does Huck, but Huck and Tom get into different kinds of trouble, because they are not the same at all. It is that they are different that makes them stand out as great characters in American literature.

It's also the draw in the Harry Potter books. You don't just have Harry and different shades of Harry. If you take out the dialogue tags, you can still tell when Hermione is speaking as opposed to Harry or Ron. Or, even, Luna or Neville. Each of Rowling's characters is its own person.

Having written a book with multiple first person perspectives, I do have some experience with this. As I've mentioned on my own blog (StrangePegs), the book The Pigman by Paul Zindel was a big part of the inspiration for the format I chose. At the time, it was the only multiple first person book I knew of (who knew it would become a "thing"?), and I wanted to experiment with that. In Zindel's book, each chapter starts with the writer of that chapter saying something like, "Hey, this is Lorraine," or, "It's John, now." It was necessary, too, because, mostly, if you take out those introductions, the chapters feel pretty much the same. I knew I didn't want that. I didn't want to have to "greet" the reader at the beginning of each chapter.

Not using any kind of intro meant that I was going to have to make sure the tone of each chapter was significantly different from the others so that the reader would be able to tell who was talking fairly quickly. And I think I did that. I mean, readers have reported distinct favorites in regards to the characters, and I don't think that would be the case unless there was significant differences between the ways each characters "talks." Adults, especially adult males, tend to favor Tom; kids tend to favor Ruth. Only a few people have told me they favor Sam (unless it's to say they like Tom and Sam, or Ruth and Sam). No one has told me they didn't like Sam, though, and I've had more than a few people tell me they found Ruth to be completely annoying. So I think I did my job.

Of course, I cheated. I used my kids as the templates for each of the characters, so I was using a real personality to start from. Of course, that's not really cheating, because some of the greatest characters in literature have been based on people the authors knew. It's a normal thing to do.

But what if you don't want to be so direct? After all, some people get upset when they read your book and find that they're in there. Where do characters, where do personalities, come from? How do you write them so that they are not just extensions of yourself? And how do you write them so that they stay true to themselves so that you don't lose your audience by having a character do something to which the audience reacts, "Oh, she would never have done that!" That can be a killer.

For the next... while, we'll be talking about personality, the different types, and how to design your characters and have them behave in manners consistent with those personalities. I hope you'll come along.


  1. I think most main characters in novels are extensions of the author's personality in some way. Can't really be helped. The trick, I think, is to put them in extraordinary circumstances so that they have to react in larger than life ways (the stuff most of us never experience).

  2. Sounds like a promising series!

    Authors need empathy to create characters from different backgrounds and value systems--and make them talk and act accordingly. (Different backgrounds lead to different values. For instance, the Navajo don't value money and fame the way we do, something that will affect how one of my characters views another.) Maybe you can never fully escape your own worldview, but if you're aware of it, you can compensate for it.

  3. I'm completely with you. For me it's the characters that make the book. In fact, I just put one down that was published by a big press because the MC felt bland, bare and transparent. It happens, right?

  4. L.G.: Usually, yes, that's true, because we can't help but put ourselves in there... unless we have a good way not to. There is very little of "me" in the character of Ruth, but, then, I did have "her" right in front of me to craft with.
    I think when we're really aware of what we're doing, we can cut huge portions of ourselves away from the sculpture.

    Sandra: I'm hoping it will be. I suppose I've been reading way too many cookie-cutter characters, lately.

    Crystal: I was just telling the kids in my creative writing class the other day that you can have the best plot in the world but no one will care if you don't have a character the reader cares about.

  5. That's one of the things I find trickiest about writing: making sure the characters are themselves and are unique. Sometimes it works better than others. As I was reading this I was thinking of characters that I've written that I thought were not ME at all. Taft, in "the After" isn't me. Nick, in "Santa, Godzilla" isn't me. They're both very unique characters who I think act in consistent ways.

    It's tough, though. You have to have a really good idea who your characters are and stick to it.

    As for "House," I'm shocked, seriously. Sam was by far my favorite. But what you did was great in that you not only wrote them in different voices, you made the voice consistent with the character. I just read a short story in which the character was supposed to be about 9, and it was told in first person, but the voice of the character made her seem a lot older. It was jarring.

  6. A friend and I are reading through books listed by Nightmare Magazine as the top 100 Horror Novels. The first one she read was by Clive Barker, who I've yet to read. She read three different books by him, but found that the characters were lackluster, and that she just plain didn't care what happened to the characters since they were blah or irritating. He's probably a bad example since he's had success, but I wonder if he would have been bigger if he were better at characterization?

  7. Briane: I tend to dislike books told from the POV of kids. They ALWAYS sound older than they should. For whatever reason, adults can't remember what it's like to be a kid and speak in that voice. If you want to write a "kid voice," spend some time around kids.

    Shannon: I haven't read any Barker other than a few comics he wrote, so I can't comment other than to say that I think the attraction with him is the bizarre villains he creates. He probably wouldn't be know at all if his villains weren't so visually interesting and got picked up for movies.

  8. Ok I came as promised. I'm not sure about this, I will have to think about it. Maybe what you are talking about defines why I enjoy some books way more than others. However, I guess it's your job, but I remember reading a story about a pianist who learned to pick out every sound in an orchestra. You are doing the same with books. To me, personally, that would detract from the enjoyment of reading or listening. Obviously not to everyone. I just want to read a good story that flows with interesting characters, I don't want to pick out why I like the way that book is written.

  9. Jo: This series is not about picking apart a book to figure out why you like it or not. It's about helping authors to develop more full characters. People who read a lot tend to disenjoy books with flat characters.

    As for music, my wife is musically trained, so she has a more difficult time enjoying music in general than I do. She'll hear wrong notes where I don't hear them. So something I think is fine, she won't like. However, when something is really well done, she has much greater appreciation for it than I do. I think this is the same kind of thing.

  10. Sounds like a fun series. Let's go!