If you think I’m talking about the Sonny & Cher song, or its Redd Kross cover version, sorry, you’re incorrect. However, you do get Magic Brownie Points in my book.
Today I have a literary mini-rant about characters. In acting school I learned it was the little things that turn everyday characters into fascinating ones. It may be because of that I developed a pet peeve regarding characters in novels, particularly contemporary romance novels. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell which character is responsible for the dialogue I am reading. I find this to be quite annoying, and rather boring. I also find when reading multiple books by one author, and I am not referring to sequels, that the same personalities are repeated over and over again. I don’t mind if the exact same character I just read about in one book makes a guest appearance, or is even featured, in another. I actually rather like it when an author creates a tidy universe. However, to use the same characterizations over and over, especially when all of your characters already sound alike, is a crime.
So how do you avoid making that mistake without turning your flesh covered humans into cartoons? The secret is in the little things. When designing Passions of the Flower, my latest novel, I gave a lot of thought to the personalities of my characters, especially the major ones. It was very important to me that the reader could absorb little things about the character that made them real. Case in point, my main character, Lily, and her brother, Donovan, tend to use contractions a lot when speaking or thinking. That was a conscious decision on my part. Their parents, however, rarely do that, if ever. My reasoning was simple—I wanted to show how Lily and Donovan were different from their parents in many ways. Character descriptions only get you so far. You need to sell reality, not just talk about it. If Lily and Donovan use the slang of the younger generation it would set them apart, but it could also make them seem less resourceful than I desired. Just because they start out as teenagers does not mean that I want them to sound immature. I wanted exactly the opposite, so youthful slang never graces their lips. Contracting words implies a level of comfort, both in dialogue between two characters and when your main character is speaking in the first person to the reader.
Donovan is often a little cocky—sometimes a little too much so. But to say that he is cocky and leave it at that is not enough. His words need too match the attitude. Donovan is also a romantic. To describe is his gestures is one thing, but actions need to be supported by words that reflect his personality. Look at the difference in the following segments:
*“His hand graced her cheek as he gazed soulfully into her eyes. He told her that he loved her and that he would never hurt her again.”
*“His hand graced her cheek as he gazed soulfully into her eyes. ”I love you. I’ll never hurt you again.””
*“His hand graced her cheek as he gazed soulfully into her eyes. ‘I’ve always loved you, and I promise with every bit of my being that you will never hurt again.””
The first example does not let the character speak. The second merely gives him words. The third is what makes Donovan who he is. Now it might be that second example, the more straight-forward one, fits one of your character best. That is perfectly fine as long as it is intentional and not all of your characters speak in the same manner, just as you would not want all of them to have the same voice as example three.
The most obvious example in Passions of the Flower of a vocal difference in a character is found in Christopher. The fact that he goes by the name “Christopher” and not “Chris” already sets him apart from the norm. Since I wanted to show a chivalrous and gentlemanly side of this rather roister doister young man he never refers to Lily other than by her full name, Lilyanna. (Donovan often calls her “Lil,” another intentional distinction, which shows the comfort level in their relationship.) The complete reasoning for Christopher calling Lily by her full name is more than whimsy and is therefor explained towards the end of the book.
This brings me to another point, if you are going to do something off kilter with your characters, you may need to explain it to your readers. Christopher again comes to mind. He is from Manchester (the one in England, across the Atlantic Sea) and uses a lot of British slang, quite a bit of which is a little outdated. While that is intentional, it could be a seen as odd to readers who are familiar with the differences in modern versus older British slang. I put a lot of research into his vocalization and made sure to back it up in the story. I did this not just for clarity, but also because how he speaks is a character trait that is brought on by his having a unique background. The slang gives him a richness that would be lacking if he did not have his incomparable voice. But I had to be careful because too much would turn him into something he wasn’t and could make the reader feel like you are watching a cartoon. When the background that has influenced his vocal mannerisms is revealed it rounds him out and puts paint on the canvas of the reader’s mind.
Of all of the characters I’ve ever developed, Christopher is by far my favorite. But that is a story for another time. Meanwhile, the bottom line is this: Make people distinguishable, but do so with reason. Visual descriptions are a great way for the reader to picture the character, but for the full experience, they should hear him too.