We’d like to thank Rusty Fischer for his guest post today.
Giving Your Characters Character: A Guest Post by Rusty Fischer, author of Ushers, Inc.
I spent last weekend editing a new YA supernatural novel and, let me tell you, it was a BEAST of an edit! Everywhere I looked, there were pints of red ink and comment after comment after comment. Every comment improved upon the work as a whole, but every improvement meant more work that I realized should have been done earlier.
When all was said and done and my eyes were dry from crying (not really, but… sort of), I realized that the editor’s biggest complaint all came down to characterization. Not only did I have too many, but occasionally I confused them. What’s more, the editor had a hard time keeping track of who was who. Or, at least, why she should care!
I worked hard to take her advice, and a second look/chance, to make the book better. I’m glad the edits were so hard. Hard edits, I’ve found, often make for better books. But what I really took away from the experience was how to handle characterization a little better in my next book.
Does any of this sound… familiar? Just in case it does, I thought I’d use this guest post to share a little of what I learned about characterization during this process:
- • Less is more: I realize that these edits could have gone a lot smoother, and the book would have been in better shape from day one, if I’d simply created fewer characters and focused more on those. I know that many characters are necessary, but… not all. For instance, the bad guy in this book had a girlfriend I spent way too much time on. The bad guy payoff would have been better if he’d been single, or a loner, or the girlfriend hadn’t consumed so much of my time. I know when writing YA they are often set in schools or colleges or clubs or groups where the more seems the merrier, but when it comes to characterization I could have done more with less.
- • Get to know them, then write them: Something new I do, but didn’t do for the book I just edited, is to create a “Character file.” In it I include a picture of some random person I find on a stock photo website that looks like the character I’m writing about; the perky cheerleader, the stoic Goth, the fresh-faced kid, the troublemaker, the Home Ec teacher, the gym coach, whatever. This allows me to quickly find a graphic illustration of each character as I’m writing about them and use those details to really flesh him or her out. Under each photo I’ll list the various character traits as they pile up, such as eye color, height, weight, parent names, street names, little things like that.
- • Cling to the details: One thing I often get spanked for, not just in this edit but in others, is that I’ll magically “forget” that one character comes home wearing his fast food burger joint uniform but without changing anywhere along the line magically winds up in jeans and a hoodie a few hours later. So when I’m making a “Character file,” I’ll often list a day of the week, or even time of the day, and what they’re wearing to remind myself, “Okay, dude’s still in his Burger Barn uniform, so… have him change somewhere along the line.” It’s those little details that can get away from you in a 60,000-word YA novel but that don’t have to if you simply note them along the way and refer back to them before you send it in to the publisher.
- • Give them identifying characteristics: I don’t mean to imply that every character should be a caricature, but remember that your readers won’t have lived, breathed, eaten and slept with these characters like you have. And if you have a lot of characters, like six girls on a cheerleading squad or five football players, it can get hard for readers to keep track. But if they know the redhead is a huge Glee fan, or the blonde has a keychain collection or the brunette is constantly obsessing about her SAT scores, these characters slowly and authentically become real. It’s not just a gimmick, either. My friends know me as “the movie guy” and my wife never goes anywhere without a personal size bottle of hand sanitizer. Don’t we all know people with habits, quirks and peculiarities that make them unique? Don’t be afraid to give your characters an identity – a recognizable identity – as well.
- • Rethink their names: I had two characters in my latest book that had very similar names, even though they were very different characters. One was a main character, one a supporting role but I kept getting them mixed up and interchanging their names at the worst possible times. It was too late in the game to change their names before final edits, but it sure did make things harder on everybody; on me, on the editor(s) and, I suspect, on the readers. Even though I worked hard to give both characters a solid identity apart from one another, I always regretted choosing their names just because they were clever. Again, I love naming characters. From Maddy to Lily to Lucy Frost to Boner and Zach and Grover and Hazel, I prefer choosing identifiable names that almost instantly create and identity for their characters. But as you begin to outline and craft the first stages of your book, be sure that your character names aren’t so similar that they’re ultimately interchangeable!
Again, I’m NO expert (clearly). BUT… I do care a LOT about my characters and am always trying to make them as good as I can be. Following these steps has helped me not just produce smoother edits in other books but more importantly produced stronger, more identifiable and relatable characters in all my future books.
And, to me, that’s worth the extra time and effort it takes to think up great characters in the first place, and then keep track of who, why and what they do – and even what they wear – along the way.
About the author: Rusty Fischer is the author of several YA supernatural novels, including Zombies Don’t Cry, Ushers, Inc., Becca Bloom & the Drumsticks of Doom, I Heart Zombie and Panty Raid @ Zombie High. Visit his blog for news, reviews, cover leaks, writing and publishing advice, book excerpts and more!