The Blog of John Hewitt

Are Your Characters Well Spoken, or is it Just You?

How Articulate Are Your Characters?

Most writers are articulate. Because they work with the written word on a daily or near daily basis, and because they have a love of language, most writers express themselves well. Just because a writer is articulate, however, doesn’t mean that a character should be articulate. Adjusting your language to suit a character, especially in dialog, is vital to creating a realistic depiction of that character and vital for differentiating that character from others in the story.

Words Reflect Background

When most people think about writing realistic dialog, they think about things such as regional accents and vocal patterns. Those things are important, but it is just as important to adjust your dialog to the specific background of the characters. For example, people know that there is a Boston accent, but most people don’t realize that the Boston accent varies greatly according to where in the city that person lives and what their economic and educational background is. Not everyone from Boston sounds the same. A well-educated Boston lawyer is not going to sound like a poorly educated bartender at a local dive.

Don’t Distract the Reader

Another mistake people make in tailoring dialog is to go too far into an accent and ignore such things as speech rhythms or word choices. J.K. Rowling, for example, uses very exaggerated accents. In the early books, before the story got particularly dark, the exaggerated accents seemed to work reasonably well considering the stories were fantasy and the intended audience was mostly children. By the final books, however, when the story was very dark and the intended audience was much wider, the exaggerated accents seemed much more unsuitable and distracting.

Unique, Not Extreme

The key with dialog, especially with accents, is to make each person’s style differentiated enough that they sound unique and identifiable, but not so extreme that people are paying more attention to the words being said than they are to the intent of the statement. Try to think of what is distinctive about the way each person speaks, and why their word choices make sense for them.

Some Things to Consider

  • Is the character concise or long winded?
  • Does the character use words they don’t fully understand?
  • Does the character have influence from different regions (such as a person from Texas now living in California or vice-versa)?
  • Is the character used to public speaking?
  • Does the character have any particular patterns or phrases that stand out?
  • Is their something about the character’s role (Boss, employee, teacher, parent) that makes a difference in the way that character speaks in different situations?

How Good is Your Bad Guy?

The Hero is Defined by the Villain

The NBC show Heroes has a lot of problems. It never quite lives up to its potential for a number of reasons. There is one thing I love about the show though. I love Sylar. Sylar is the bad guy. Occasionally you get the feeling that he would like to be a good guy, but deep down he is bad. His essential flaw is that he craves power. Specifically, he craves the superpowers of the other characters and he has a longing to take them, by force, generally leaving the other characters dead or at least deeply changed. Despite that, there is a certain glee to Sylar. He enjoys what he does, and he can readily explain why he does what he does. He’s also funny, and that always helps. I know many people absolutely hate Sylar. That’s fine too. Whatever the case, people care about the guy. People pay attention when he is on the screen.

The Villain Doesn’t Have to be Evil

Not all bad guys are quite as evil as Sylar. In some cases, they aren’t evil at all, they just have goals or intentions that run counter to the Hero. Watch a romantic comedy, and you will often see a good guy antagonist. For example Kevin is the ex-boyfriend of the Greg Focker’s fiance Pam. Kevin is as close to the perfect guy as you can imagine. He is kind and creative. He is handy with a hammer and he is never anything but nice. He is so perfect, in fact, that Stiller’s character feels immensely threatened by the guy and worries that he is going to lose his fiancé to him.

Antagonists Represent Obstacles

Antagonists come in many forms. They may be as evil and ruthless as Darth Vader or they may be as commonplace as an overbearing boss, a flirtatious ex-girlfriend or an annoying little sister. The main role of the antagonist is to provide obstacles for the protagonist. The antagonist’s needs and desires in some way interfere with the needs and desires of the protagonist. The boss makes the protagonist work late when he should be with his wife. The flirtatious ex-girlfriend makes the protagonist doubt his commitment to the wife. The annoying little sister asks exactly the wrong questions just when they can cause the most trouble.

Every Character has a Story

When you are writing your novel, keep in mind that the antagonists have their own goals, their own needs, and their own hopes and desires. You may not agree with their world view, but you should respect that it is important to them. The antagonists are, in their own minds, the protagonist of their own stories. Respect and understand their needs, and you will create antagonists that people want to read about.

Character Bio Sheets

Character bio sheets are not only a simple way to create characters, they are a great way to keep track of the characters you develop. When you write a longer work, such as a novel or screenplay, it is easy to forget minor character details. If you aren’t careful, the blue eyes you described on page five can turn to brown eyes by the end of page eighty.

Using a character bio sheet, you can record all of the essential details for your characters and keep them in a single place so that you can check those details whenever necessary. As your story progresses and your characters continue to evolve, you can use bio sheets to keep track of any changes you have made to your characters. If you keep track of all your details on the bio sheet, your editing process will go much more smoothly.

When you fill out a bio sheet initially, don’t feel as if you have to include a detail for every category. There are many things you will need to discover as your story progresses. On your first pass, record all of the details you are comfortable with and leave the rest. Feel free to add your own categories. This list has details that I find useful. You may have different needs or ideas.

  • Character Name
  • Nickname / Alias
  • Date of Birth
  • Place of Birth
  • Residence
  • General Appearance
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Measurements
  • Clothing Sizes
  • Clothing Choices
  • Hair Color
  • Hair Length
  • Eye Color
  • Handedness
  • Jewelry
  • Tattoos / Marks
  • Role in the Story
  • Key Relationships
  • Education
  • Work History
  • Skills
  • Phobias / Fears
  • Bad Habits / Vices
  • Quirks
  • Best Qualities
  • Worst Qualities
  • Key Childhood Experiences
  • Key Teenage Experiences
  • Key Adult Experiences
  • Sexual Background
  • Favorites (food, clothing, art, music, TV show, movie, book)
  • Goals and Motivations
  • Morality / Ethics
  • Style of Speech
  • Words/Slang/Jargon
  • Additional Information
  • Character Name
  • Nickname / Alias
  • Date of Birth
  • Place of Birth
  • Residence
  • General Appearance
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Measurements
  • Clothing Sizes
  • Clothing Choices
  • Hair Color
  • Hair Length
  • Eye Color
  • Handedness
  • Jewelry
  • Tattoos / Marks
  • Role in the Story
  • Key Relationships
  • Education
  • Work History
  • Skills
  • Phobias / Fears
  • Bad Habits / Vices
  • Quirks
  • Best Qualities
  • Worst Qualities
  • Key Childhood Experiences
  • Key Teenage Experiences
  • Key Adult Experiences
  • Sexual Background
  • Favorites (food, clothing, art, music, TV show, movie, book)
  • Goals and Motivations
  • Morality / Ethics
  • Style of Speech
  • Words/Slang/Jargon
  • Additional Information

10 days of character building wrap up

Character Bio Sheets

A bio sheet is a way of keeping track of a character’s physical description, traits and attributes. This method is familiar to anyone who enjoys role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Using a Bio Sheet gives you an excellent reference point to go back to when you need to remember key information about your character.
Defining Characters By Their Roles

There are specific roles that characters fall into when you are writing a story. These include Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Trickster.  Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers explores these roles in depth.

Building a Character Using Multiple Perspectives

This technique helps you to build relationships. You write about your character based on other people’s (characters in the story) views and opinions about that person.

Key Questions

This is a simple list of questions that provide insight into your character and how your character fits into your story.

Basing Characters on Real People

We often draw inspiration for fictional characters from people we know in real life. This article gives you advice on how to avoid some of the problems that can crop up when you translate a real person into a fictional one.

A Day in the Life

Once the events of a story kick into motion, main characters are pushed outside of their boundaries and comfort zones. Following your character through a typical day helps you figure out who that character is under normal circumstances.

Interview

This is a classic method of creating a character. You set up a situation in which that character is being interviewed (for a magazine, by the police, for a job, etc.). This not only allows you to delve into your character’s personality, it helps you to develop your character’s voice.

Biography

A biography is an in-depth exploration of the events in your character’s life that lead to who your character is at the beginning of the story.

Possessions

Defining what your character owns (and doesn’t own) provides insight into the character’s personality and circumstances.

Brainstorming

This is a stream-of consciousness method that allows you to think fluidly about a character without editing yourself. You write quickly and delete nothing until you are done.

Creating a role-playing character biography

The point of writing a back story for a role playing character is to enrich your experience in the game. The biography of the character helps define that character’s actions and attitude. When it comes to adversity, the character’s life doesn’t have to be miserable, but it should include some moments that give the character motivation.

Let’s say I decide to play a bard (I don’t want to taint your sorceress). I want my bard to have some fighting skill and some musical skill, but the character is still young and relatively unproven. In researching character skills I decide I want him to start off with skills in performing, scribing and basic weapons. I also intend for him to pick up forgery, diplomacy and information gathering as skills later on. Personality wise, I picture him as good natured but a bit of a con man and a blowhard. He doesn’t just want to kill enemies and make money; he wants to have a great story to tell. He’s also the type of adventurer who will do whatever it takes to survive.

Below are a few short questions and answers that I will use to flesh out his character. I include my thought process in parentheses.

What’s his/her Name?

Lute Barjoey (This name is musical and it ties into his heritage. Yes, that can be a little hokey but role-playing games are for fun, not literature.)

Where did he/she grow up?

Lute grew up in a minor town of about 800 people. He was the third of three children, all boys. His father and mother owned a small tavern where they and his eldest brother Edward worked. Lute grew up surrounded by laughter, liquor and music (Explaining his formative background in music and revelry).

Why did the character become a bard (Sorceress, warrior, etc.)?

Lute was an amazingly intelligent and beautiful child with an excellent aptitude for mimicry both in voice and instrument (Accounting for the high points I allot to charisma and intelligence). As the third child he stood little chance of inheriting the bar so his parents apprenticed him to a touring theater company where he received basic training (Enough to be a low level bard with some performing abilities). While touring, the theater company disbanded for a lack of funds, leaving the young man in a new city with almost no money (Adversity). He survived for a while by performing music and storytelling in the streets and by writing letters and documents (Scribing) for the illiterate townsfolk but spent more than one night hungry and huddled in the cold (More adversity!). While he believed himself to be a good person, he stole food on more than one occasion and conned his way into a few ladies beds by virtue of his looks (Food and shelter trump law and honor for him).

Tired of living hand-to-mouth he joined the military and was sent to a foreign war. He spent most of his time as a prison guard and saw very little action (Remember he is still young and untested), but he learned how to use basic military weapons such as swords and bows. Much of his time was actually spent playing music for his fellow soldiers and writing letters home for them (More performing and scribing).

How did the character come to seek adventure?

The roots of the bard’s wanderlust began when he toured with the theater company. The desire to travel grew while in the military. After his country was victorious in the war, they cut back on their military. Lute was given a small severance package and went home to live with his parents. He worked for a year scribing documents for the local government (The roots of both his emerging forgery and diplomacy skills) but still spent his nights playing flute in his parent’s tavern and entertaining the locals with his exaggerated tales of the war based on other soldier’s letters (The roots of his information gathering skill). His future seemed set, but the thought of spending the rest of his life writing down other people’s words depressed him (More adversity and desire for adventure). Also, he longed for the money to start a theater group of his own and he knew that his small salary would never be enough (A goal). Plus, he had told his exaggerated stories of adventure so many times that he had started to believe them himself.

How did the character arrive where he/she is?

One day Lute packed up his few belongings (Including paper, a pen and ink, a sword, a bow and a flute) and decided to head out in search of adventure. There were rumors of rebellion in the lands his country had conquered. Apparently martial law was failing. Lute smelled adventure . . . and money. (These circumstances may have to be molded to whatever adventure is being planned)