Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Losing Your Character

Hi, I’m Barbara D’Amato. Thank you for visiting The Outfit Collective.

I read when I should be writing, when I should be cleaning out a closet or flushing the septic tank or mincing leeks. Probably I read one crime novel every two days or so— a long one takes maybe three days. Lately, I’ve read a few books where one or more characters are not adequately introduced.

See, I’m reading along happily, a hundred pages or so in, and some guy named Bill pops up. Who is Bill? Is he the best friend, the old enemy, the family lawyer, the drug pusher? These are not all the same people, mind you. I start paging back through the book, looking for the first appearance of Bill. Talk about taking the reader out of the story!

Aha. Maybe he’s this William guy, sometimes called Will. Or Wm. Replevin, Esq., the lawyer. Aha. Yes. Now where was I--?

Putting the reader through this confusion is not necessary. The author may be trying for naturalism or faster pace. Or maybe the author is fearful that saying something clear, like “Bill the lawyer” too often would be tedious for the reader. But the reader’s eye passes right over that extra, helpful information, just taking in the fact of who the character actually is. This is good.

Refer to each character the same way each time. At least until you are sure the reader knows the character, call him by the same name.

There are several other ways, too, of introducing characters and keeping them straight for the reader.

Don’t be afraid to mention the character’s relationship or profession.

Give the character characteristic speech and keep it consistent.

Yes, this can be overdone. Remember the anglo-Indian colonel? Never used pronouns. “Mmmmf, mmmf. Must trek to town. Been a fortnight. Out of Pimm’s cup, what? What-what?” But everybody has some idiosyncrasies in phrasing or accent.

Have other characters react to this character in characteristic ways.

Or: Have the other characters react to this character in the way you want the reader to react. This is one of the least obtrusive techniques for defining a character, and since other characters in the story are having their say as they react, it helps define them, too. “Bill, you talk too much. You never let me get a word in.” The speaker clearly wants some attention, plus we know that Bill is a chatterer.

If other characters in a book like good old Bill, so will the reader. Which is also a neat trick if Bill is the killer.

Connect an event, a point of view, an argument, or even an object to the character. Remember Long John Silver? He had a parrot on his shoulder and a wooden leg. Too much? Sure, but the man who keeps fiddling with his pipe is given memorability and character, especially if he uses the pipe as a cover for not wanting to answer a question, or a barrier between himself and other people. Or maybe he’s just clumsy—spills tobacco, drops his pipe, drops glassware and falls over his feet.

Then there’s the guy who can’t stop grumbling over the lack of parking spaces in Chicago – no, no wait. That’s all of us. Doesn’t distinguish him at all.

One of the books I read in the last week revealed the killer by name on the second-to-last page. On the basis of the name, I could not remember which person he was, although I figured it out from a couple of final details. This really detracted from the surprise the author was trying to produce. [Three of the main characters, by the way, had names beginning with Mi-.]

Don’t do this to your readers.

43 comments:

D.A. Davenport said...

Thank you for the advice, Barbara. I can tell that this blog will become a bit of a classroom for me. I am still concentrating on honing my skills in short story format (I just had my first story accepted by Flashing in the Gutters) and of course characters need to be defined very quickly and solidly in that format. However, I can see where the problems you wrote about could occur quite easily the first time I attempt a novel. With this kind of valuable input being shared with those of us just getting started, I'm sure to be a daily reader. Thanks for giving all of us such a nice blog to visit

Kevin Guilfoile said...

That's well said, Barb.

Heck, my siblings are Tom, Pete, and Ann and my mom has trouble keeping us straight. Maybe she should have tried harder to give us each an eccentric characteristic. I could have been the only kid at William Penn Elementary with a monocle.

Personally, I think it sometimes helps to throw an Obi-Wan in there to contrast with your Lukes and Leias. In fact when it comes to giving my characters unusual names, I probably enjoy doing it a little too much. I'm trying not to do it at my own children's expense, but it's hard.

Many congratulations on getting that story accepted, D.A.

I assume it's a legal thriller of some sort, speaking of names.

D.A. Davenport said...

Thanks, Kevin. Actually, it's a kind of a noir/femme fatale thing called "Beautiful Schemer". I was thrilled, enjoyed the moment then began tearing into a new one. It was bad enough when I couldn't turn down a desert tray. This addiction is dangerous!

Allison Brennan said...

Hi Barb! This post couldn't have come at a better time. I'm trying to name my protagonist in the last book of my trilogy and it's been harder than I thought. The first name I picked was too close in cadance to the other main protagonist, but I haven't found a suitable replacement. Back to the baby books . . . using your guide.

ab said...

Blushing as I read this useful entry!

In my first book, I was determined this was not going to be a police-oriented mystery. Hence, I didn't care enough about names, and a police woman and a lawyer had similar last names. They were Danielsson and Davidsson. The characters took on their own lives and made their own decisions, though, and my police woman is now (third book into the series) the main protagonist. And Danielsson the lawyer is her friend.

Luckily, nobody has complained, and you can't mix up the first names which are the ones mainly used (John, Margareta). Still, it's a flaw and it goes to prove you have to be careful.

Nienke said...

Great advice, Barbara!
I can see I'm going to enjoy this blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading this blog. So far it is promising to be very interesting. Anyone interested in finding out a bit more about Barbara should check out David Skibbins website. www.davidskibbins.com go to What's Next, then click on Murder Thursday. David did a wonderful hour interview with Barbara. Lot's of interesting stuff and comforting to know that if things get out of hand here Barbara can draw on her past experiences to "tame" or as she says "handle the wild beasts.

Judy Bobalik

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for the link, Judy. Barb is much too modest to BSP herself...

Sean Chercover said...

I second that. Thanks, Judy, for the link. I enjoyed listening to Barb's interview. Great stuff.

Marcus Sakey said...

Great post, Barbara!

One of the things I find really interesting is how much a character changes based on whether I use a first or last name. The protagonist of my WIP is named Jason Palmer, and the first time I wrote the first chapter, I referred to him as Palmer.

Palmer was hard core. Palmer kicked ass, and Palmer took names.

But he didn't generate a lot of sympathy. Even in me.

When I rewrote the chapter, I called him Jason. And the whole thing reassembled itself. Jason could still be plenty tough, but he came off as a real person, vulnerable and young where Palmer seemed like a hardboiled killer. To find my character, I had to name him right.

Anybody else have that happen?

ab said...

Marcus, that is interesting. Obviously when you called him Palmer the reader saw him as a stranger, but when you called him Jason, they (and you!) identified with him, and then everything he did was pretty much excused. Tells us a lot about ourselves doesn't it?

Annika

anne frasier said...

here's a name problem i keep running into.
two male characters in a scene. father and son. son's third-person POV.
i don't want to keep referring to the father as the father, the older man, but from the kid's POV he wouldn't call his father Fred. in some books, i've actually done that -- but every teenager isn't going to call his dad by his first name. but i wonder if the reader doesn't notice the name and just accepts the use of it.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Marcus, I have a female character in CAST OF SHADOWS who is referred to mostly by her last name, both by other characters and by narration. Whenever I talk to readers about the book--at book clubs and so forth--someone invariably brings that fact up. For some people it made her tougher. For some it made her more likable. For others a little less. It was one of those decisions you make by instinct--because it feels right for the character--but it's obviously had a real impact on a lot of readers.

I also refer to one of the book's villains exclusively by his first name. He's an especially despicable guy and, again talking to readers, I don't think there's any question it has created some sympathy for him. Or if not actual sympathy, the feeling that the reader should be sympathetic toward him and when he continues to be unredeemable, a lot of interesting ambivalence. Again, an instinctive decision when writing, but it's cool to see the effect its had.

Along the same lines, Anne, I think you're probably right that the "dad" problem will sort of work itself out. It seems to me if you have the voice right and don't force it, the answer will eventually be obvious.

D.A. Davenport said...

Anne- Is it from the child-son's 3rd person POV or the adult-son's 3rd person POV, remembering an incident from his youth? I would think that with a child he would be more inclined to use the familial titles, no matter the circumstances. How ever with a teen-ager or an adult in memory mode, especially if there is conflict involved, I feel the use of the father's first name would fine to use.

johnny dangerous said...

Good advice. Mystery novels can get very talky, with lots of people coming and going. My challenge is not letting the story get too cluttered with characters and to keep them all interesting and necessary to the story.

Namaku Keren said...

Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus
Obat Kanker Usus

Namaku Keren said...

.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

T
B
B
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

teguh priyanto said...

T
B
B
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

teguh priyanto said...

T
B
B
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

teguh priyanto said...

H
H
H
H
H
H
H
H

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

teguh priyanto said...

X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D

teguh priyanto said...

D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D

D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D
D

Namaku Keren said...

`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

Namaku Keren said...

`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

Namaku Keren said...

`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

Namaku Keren said...

`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`
`

teguh priyanto said...

A
B
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C
C

C
C
C
C
C
C

teguh priyanto said...

C
C
C
C
C
C
C
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
BE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

teguh priyanto said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

teguh priyanto said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE

Obat kanker serviks manjur said...

TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE
TE