Okay, so you’ve decided to write the great American novel, play, short story or TV series. You first of all must have a basic plot which you can tell people in fewer than fifty words. You have to have believable characters and their names have to match their personalities in order to make them sound realistic. So here is the quandary. Which do you come up with first in creating a character: personality or name? Answer: Personality. Generally the personality of a character will guide us to an apt name.
We learned in an earlier blog that for a screenplay we can have about 4 main characters and up to eight secondary characters. If you have anymore, you will need a scorecard to keep up with which person is doing what to whom. In a novel you can have as many secondary characters as you like, but you’re still going to have to limit yourself to about four main characters. These are the people you follow throughout the book. In TV and a stage play, the number of main characters runs about the same as a screenplay. For a short story you can have two main characters (a good guy and a bad guy or you can just have a good guy and the bad guy can be the environment—a storm, a shipwreck, or some negative set of circumstances.)
Now that we’ve gotten down the basic plot in fifty words or less and the number of characters we’re working with, the hard part is upon us. We now must form that main tier of characters and assign them symptoms of living such as adolescence, anxiety, defiant, depression, gender identity disorder, obsessive, needy etc.
Then we have to deal with a trait brought on by that symptom such as abuse, sex, academia, aggression, anxiety, attitude (likes and dislikes), conformity, delinquency, irritability, spoiled, withdrawn, guilt, clinical narcissist, etc.
You must have a symptom as well as a trait in compounding your characters or, without realizing it, you will be putting together a bunch of stereotypes and clichéd people—which is literary poison. You will come up with these two losers if you just have a symptom or a trait instead of both.
For example, if you just used anxiety as a symptom and had no trait with it, you would more than likely come up with a stereotype character of little interest to follow. So, how would this character act if say his son had been killed in a car crash? He might have cried and gotten drunk. That would be pretty trite. However, if you added a trait such as vengeful, your character could go berserk and try to kill the person who ran the stop sign and caused his son’s death.
This method allows you to come up with characters that are interesting and worth following. By having both a symptom and a trait, your characters can play off of one another in almost any situation. The same applies to minor characters who bring information to your story and cause action to happen.
Creating characters via this technique allows us to bring believable characters to the drawing board. As an author, it is easier to walk in the shoes of interesting, three-dimensional people. Trust me, those author shoes of yours will pinch if you rely on just a symptom or trait for each of your characters. Having both a symptom and a trait is the way to allow your characters to grow and change right before the eyes of the reader or viewer.
Stereotypes and clichéd characters reduce an entire group of people to one symptom or trait. I was at a dinner party the other night and one of the guests became boring when he began making statements such as, “Oh, you can’t trust the Greeks. They’re all robbers and cheats. And Italians, they are very handsy and friendly and want to hug you but just don’t turn your back on them. A lot of the time these foreigners pretend they don’t understand what you’re saying, but they know more English than they let on. Just shout at them and they’ll understand soon enough. Believe me, I’m from the Midwest and there’s one thing you can say about Midwesterners: Their word is their bond.”
On and on it went. That’s how your writing will sound if you don’t make each of your characters a real, live, interesting person with his or her own personality trait and way of expressing himself or herself via an emotional symptom.
At the risk of tooting my own horn, here is a quote from the literary critic of The International Herald Tribune newspaper who expresses what I am trying to pass onto you in today’s blog: “Fitzgerald has an uncanny knack of capturing American types and speech; it is in their conversation and present-day mores that Fitzgerald’s talent shines. Fitzgerald is so adept with a pen he can make the improbably seem believable, utterly believable. His humor and satire is achieved not by physical identification but by verbal. Just let one of his characters open his or her mouth and personality is stamped with jocose exactitude. “
Read my book Teddy Bear Murders and from page 1, you will see literal examples of what I’m talking about in this blog and what the critic above meant. Each character you encounter in this book will have a definite symptom and trait.
Next week the blog will offer you some suggestions on how to name these people you’ve created.