The Art of Mirriam Neal

//creating diverse characters

I was emailing with a friend the other day and she said, “What helps you write diverse characters? I’ve noticed recently that a lot of my characters are the same. One of the things that I’m always struck by, when reading your works, is how well you do characters. Do you have any tricks to getting in side a character’s head?”

I usually find a lobotomy works.

I’m kidding. I don’t recommend lobotomizing anyone, unless it propels the story where you want it to go. Ahem.

Characters are, for me, what drives a story. Plot is highly important and not to be overlooked, but characters are the most important, in my opinion. Something can be riddled with plot holes, but I’ll still love it if the characters are vibrant and interesting. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve been reading a book or watching a movie or starting a show, and I can’t continue because the characters are cookie-cutter replicas of one another. (Another thing a lot of YA authors get stuck in is repeating themselves. They’ll finish one series and start another, but the characters are the same as the last series – just with different names and a slightly different plot.)

But how to keep characters from looking and sounding like they came off an assembly line?

• It’s the little things. One thing I notice authors – particularly YA authors – do is skip over the details and small touches. Does someone write a lot? Maybe they twirl the pen or pencil in their fingers, or stick it in their hair, or chew on it. Does someone have funky fashion sense? Do they hate a particular color? Do they always order the same coffee drink? Do they decorate their laptop with decals? Don’t skip out on the details. They’re important – they may seem small, but they help solidify the character overall.

• Cast them. One of my favorite things to do is find real people – usually singers or actors I love – and cast them as my character. Then I pay attention to their mannerisms, facial expressions, preferences, relationships, personalities, fashion sense, etc. and channel it into the character. It’s an excellent way to get a well-rounded, realistic character. (Note: there is a major side effect to this attachment. You will probably get inordinately attached to the human you cast as your character. I give you fair warning.)

• Give them distinct speech patterns. This may seem like a little thing, but overall, it’s huge. Many characters end up flat because the way they talk is boring. Fix that. Realize that some people would say ‘I’d rather not’ while others would say ‘Nah,’ or that some people might say ‘That’s incorrect’ while others would say ‘that’s wrong,’ or that some people might say ‘I hate that’ while others might say ‘It’s not awful.’ An optimistic person will try to see the bright side, a pessimistic person won’t bother. Personalities determine a person’s speech patterns – don’t skimp out.

• Use character bio worksheets. Write down lists of their mannerisms, their likes and dislikes. Having it solidified in your mind will really help, and you won’t struggle so much to get them down on paper. You have to get to know your characters and figure out what makes them tick before they’ll behave.

• Characters are people, too. Let them have a little slack. Don’t micromanage them. Sometimes characters are more in control of the story than I am. I’ll try to write someone, and he’ll misbehave until I change his name, for instance. (This has happened on more than one occasion.) It’s a symbiotic relationship, and if the character tries to tell you something, don’t ignore it. (Trust me – resistance is futile.)

 • Write down five words defining your character. For example, my character Hyde would be: sharp, brittle, perceptive, raw, kind. My character Leila would be: soft, intelligent, keen, active, caring. If you notice several of your characters overlapping characteristics, shake them up and change them around. Try not to let them have more than three similarities, at the most. You want their most obvious characteristics to be unique to them, not ubiquitous to the whole cast.

• Spend a day as your character. This may sound a little absurd, but it’s something I randomly do when I get really, truly, extremely stuck. Dress like your character. Talk like your character. Think like your character. Sure, it’s a little extreme, but sometimes it’s what I need to jump-start them.

• Sometimes, the character doesn’t belong in the novel. I do this constantly – I create a character who I love, but after a bit of plotting I realize they don’t belong in this novel. Remove them, save them, and put them in a novel where they can really shine. You’ll be glad you did.

Do you have any tricks for helping develop your characters? I’d love to know what works for you!

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