Tag Archives: character description

Managing the Large Cast of Characters #amwriting

Today we begin a series on character creation. A large cast of characters can be difficult to write well. We want each character to have an evolving personality. The reader wants to know them as friends, to see them to grow in a positive or negative way as the events of the story unfold.

MyWritingLife2021BI try to keep the ensemble narrow in my work, limiting points of view to only one, two, or three characters at most. I keep the core cast limited to four or five, as it takes a lot of effort to show more people than that as being separate and unique.

Any number of evolutionary occurrences can happen in the first draft, and the plot will often change from what was originally planned. I use a stylesheet, also known as a storyboard, to keep track of the plot and the characters.

  • I update my stylesheet/storyboard whenever a significant change occurs. This avoids errors such as a character’s name being a duplicate.

So, let’s talk about books with large casts of characters. How do other authors keep large casts separate and prevent their readers from becoming confused? How do they do this and ensure the plot rolls forward at a good pace?

Several years ago, I read Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author Liane Moriarty and talked about it on this blog. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa and three staff members.

Nine_Perfect_Strangers_Liane_MoriartyMoriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. They sucked me into their world in the opening pages. I couldn’t set the book down, as I wanted to know everyone’s dark secrets. I was hooked; I had to understand what led these people to book themselves into that exceedingly unusual health spa.

  • Moriarty introduces us to the cast by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

The story picks up a decade later when nine people meet at a remote Australian health spa. They’ve all been lured there by word-of-mouth and brochures that promise to transform their lives. They are guaranteed a complete transformation in only ten days, which seems impossible.

  • All have deeply personal reasons for wanting their life to be changed for the better.

The characters are wary, as the reviews they have read are glowing, and so are the recommendations by their friends. But no one will explain how such a change will be accomplished.

  • Each guest arrives with emotional baggage.

So—everyone steps onto the stage with reasons for being there. This sucked me in and made me like or dislike each guest from the outset. And whether I liked them or not, I wanted to know their secrets.

  • Several chapters in, Masha, whom Yao rescued from a heart attack in the opening pages, is revealed as the benevolent antagonist.
  • Yao has become her ardent disciple.

The pair was exceedingly mysterious. I couldn’t tell exactly what their relationship was, and it intrigued me. Was Yao her lover, her henchman, or both?

  • How had Masha and Yao come to form this strange partnership? They had only met in the line of duty because of her heart attack.
  • At the outset, I had to know Masha’s secret and how she had become this guru.
  • I needed to know what she and Yao were up to.

This novel demonstrates that one doesn’t have to follow every literary rule to make a great, engaging narrative. Structurally, the plot is choppy, and the ending is a series of infodumps.

But it works because Moriarty establishes each character as an individual at the outset. Each one is infinitely relatable, and their personal stories are layered into the plot-arc, forming an onion-like narrative. I had to read, had to keep peeling that onion, eager to get to the core.

  • She gives them each a vivid personality, a physical appearance that is only theirs, and a unique history.
  • Each guest embodies a mystery that unfolds as the plot progresses.

Who are youThe guests are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment. The food they are offered is high quality but not what they are used to and varies from guest to guest.

PLOT POINT: The nine guests are required to ingest certain vitamins and minerals that Yao and Masha prescribe for them.

  • Their diets, vitamins, and medicines are carefully tailored to what Yao and Masha have determined are their individual needs.
  • The diet of fruits, cereals, and vegetables is not universally loved.
  • An exercise program is also enforced.

These stresses impact each character’s evolution, some for good and others, not.

Even later in the middle of the narrative, I had no trouble following who was who, as each character has an unmistakable surface persona.

  • This means each character’s outward personality is different from the others.

Soon after meeting the cast, Moriarty gives us small glimpses of weaknesses and fears, hinting at the secrets each character brings with them to the spa. As the story progresses, we learn more about the sorrows, guilts, and regrets that drive them.

The nine guests have each signed contracts before arriving at the wilderness spa. When it becomes clear the rules they have agreed to obey are iron-clad and strictly enforced, they become angry and afraid. Each guest reacts in a way that is true to their established personality.

  • Some vent their rage, some rebel, and others accept it as what they signed up for.
  • Yet, each character is willing to continue because they are desperate to heal a void in their lives.

Characterization is a core aspect of a story. When I am revising a first draft, I try to discover and reveal snippets of their history, gradually melding those secrets into the evolving plot. My stylesheet/storyboard helps me stay on task.

Even if you don’t make a stylesheet, I suggest you create a personnel file for each character. This will help you understand what makes each one different from the others.

A personnel file should contain:

personnel fileCharacter Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.

About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Personality traits: Are they sunny and upbeat or dark and brooding? Are they somewhere in between?

Physical appearance: Coloring, hair color, eye color, short or tall, physical build.  Are they smartly dressed, or uncaring of clothing styles?

Their problem: What is their void, their core conflict?

What do they want? What does each character desire?

What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

What secret will they take to their grave?

Don’t worry if you do things in a way that might not be technically correct. Books like Nine Perfect Strangers prove that good prose, compelling storylines, and strong character arcs engage the reader and overcome most writing wrongs.

In my next post, we’ll talk about the fine line between villains and heroes and how flaws and imperfections in our characters can improve the narrative.

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Characters: the Legalities Rant #amwriting

Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.

Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes  into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.

Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.

We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.[3]

Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.

That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).

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Character description: too much or not enough? #amwriting

I love eBooks for the simple reason I have over 800 books, and I don’t have to dust them. I do buy paper books, but only those on writing craft or research for my work.

I have managed to get nearly every book I ever loved as an eBook. Every week I add at least two more books to my library. I have become a fan of hundreds of new authors, most of them indies.

Every now and then I read a book that is traditionally published, sometimes taking a dip into general fiction. I did that this week, reading a book I saw advertised on twitter. I picked it up, knowing I might hate it because the critics loved it.

I can live without a happy ending, and even with no ending at all. Not every story ends happily. But please, make the pages that come before that lack of ending something more than self-indulgent hero worship of your protagonist. I get that you’re in love with your characters. I’m in love with mine too.

Just don’t wax poetic about their magnetic beauty on every third page, please.

Unfortunate phrasings that yank me out of a book:

“She lay there staring with her creamy blue eyes, water pooling in the corners.”

“Her eyes were the same color as the deep purple velvet drapes.”

Meh. Enough about their eyes already. Some authors go to incredible (and at times, awkward) lengths to force their personal creative vision of what a character looks like on the reader.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told what to think when I am reading a book. What I consider beautiful is not necessarily attractive to someone else.

But this brings us to a dilemma that many authors seem to face. How do you describe a character in such a way that the reader will find them as attractive as you want them to be?

You must give the reader enough of a general description that they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Generally, you want to show a character’s coloring, hair style/color, eye color, general physical description. Especially, you must somehow mention anything that is unique about their appearance. If they are not too fastidious, mention it, and the same goes for if they are obsessively fastidious.

Actions can reveal physical characteristics and mannerisms. Consider how they fix their hair, what style of clothes they gravitate to, even how they move and interact with both the environment and other characters. What are their habitual facial expressions?

Offer this information up in bits over a period of time rather than dumping it in a police-blotter style of delivery. Just don’t go on and on giving minute, unimportant details.

In my Tower of Bones series, the men in Edwin’s family have this sort of cachet that makes them irresistible to all women. It is the Goddess Aeos’s way of ensuring that the girl she has selected for them falls in love with them, and their bloodline is continued.

But what do Edwin and his father (and grandfather) look like? Edwin and his family are a lot like my uncles were as young men, tall, blondish, blue-eyed, and physically strong from working on their farm. They’re rather average, nothing spectacular. They’re good-looking, but aren’t overly handsome. However, there is something about them that causes trouble in a certain strata of female society that has a rather free approach to life.

So what is this charisma these men have? (And that my uncles did not have.)

Here is where I romanticize them. To most men, they seem no more intriguing than any other person, but to women, they are an irresistible banquet of masculine pheromones. Since they do a lot of traveling, this creates opportunities for mayhem. While writing the Tower of Bones series, I’ve had a lot of fun with that plot-line, especially when it came to Wynn Farmer in Mountains of the Moon.

For my other characters in various books, again we write what we know. In my mind, all my characters are exceedingly good-looking in their own different ways. I am of British Isles stock as is most of my family, but I live in a town filled with people of all races and origins. Throughout my life, my neighbors have been from such diverse places as Japan, Mexico, Alabama, Norway, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, and Minneapolis.

Thus, in my head, my characters are of all races, and all are attractive to me.

Huw the Bard is darkly handsome, blue-eyed with black curling hair, and has a roguish charm that women find irresistible. An incurable romantic and on the run, he loves many, but gives his heart only to a few.

Billy Ninefingers is exceptionally tall and strong, sandy-haired, with a boyish face. He’s competent and a strong leader with a firm sense of justice. He is in love with only one woman, but there are complications.

Reina Jacobs is a middle-aged woman, a retired pilot who has been conscripted back into active duty. She has short iron-grey hair and is a cyborg. She is attracted to Ladeaux, a pilot of her age, but while they are working together, she won’t fall into a romance.

Personally, I don’t find Prosperine as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to my taste, although as a painting it is flawlessly executed. But millions of people find her beautiful, and he certainly did. His model, Jane Morris, was considered a great beauty in her day.

Yet the images of her, both painted and photographed, portray her as sulky-looking, which is not attractive to me at all.

I choose not to beat the reader over the head with my personal vision, other than the general description for the reader to hang their imagination on. I want the reader to see beauty and magnetism in the way that is most appealing to them. I hope that mannerisms, conversations, and other characters’ opinions convey the image the reader wants to see in a protagonist.

And this is the way it is for every author. We are painters who use words to show an image. We want to the reader to see what they believe is beauty.

Your vision of beauty is not what your readers see, and to force too many details on them ruins the flow of the tale.

A good general description, with hints or comments about their beauty or lack thereof, is all that is needed. If you provide the framework, the reader’s mind will supply the rest.

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