Sunday, February 12, 2012

Picking and Choosing Character Traits

Raise your hand if you've ever read a novel, then went to see the movie and the first thing out of your mouth was, "She shouldn't be playing that role! That's not at all how I envisioned the character to look! Whoever cast this thing didn't know what the heck they were doing!" (Or more flagrant wording if you are so inclined.)

Yes, my hand is raised.

Jennifer Lawrence
The Hunger Games
When it comes to movies, nothing seems to annoy us more than when a beloved novel gets made into a film and gets miscast. But why? Well, a lot of it has to do with how we've interpreted the characters on the page, and believe it or not, most of us interpret those characters much differently than how another reader might. I've heard more than my share of grumblings over Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss in the upcoming The Hunger Games film. She's to old, not the right build, not a strong enough actor to believably play the part, etc. Take a look at the movie poster, and I'll let you be the judge. I'd have to say my personal favorite to this day is Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, a sizzling story about a bank robber (George Clooney) and a US Marshal (Lopez) on a case to catch him in the act. The book was nothing more than a throwaway heist novel written by Elmore Leonard that I read a couple years before the film was made. In the novel, the US Marshal is a willowy blonde, nothing like how Lopez's character looks in the film. I'm sure you have a specific film character that to this day just bugs the heck out of you.

No matter how the film world ends up interpreting the characters we write in novels, we still need to take care in how we portray them. After all, it is the characters a reader falls in love with (just take a look at the Twilight series, because I don't believe it's the writing that's winning over fans). As writers, how does one go about crafting a striking character that will stand out to the reader and make the story come alive? Here are a few pointers:

  • Avoid clichés -- Don't make every cop crooked, every blonde busty, every school teacher gentle and sweet, or every lead male flawless in appearance and backstory. I once reviewed a novel (The Art of Murder by Don West) and the whole thing made me cringe. To this day, I think it's one of the most character clichéd books I've ever read. You want your characters to be unique. Give them qualities that will stand out to the reader, like a fascinating backstory or quirky characteristics. I recently heard a statistic about hitchhikers. Hitchhikers who wear ties are more likely to get picked up off the side of the road than those who don't. Well, then give your hitchhiker a tie!
  • Don't just focus on physical appearance -- Although we fall in love with a character at first sight (or first read) we always want to know what makes that character tick. What kind of story follows this character around? Is it a tale of woe? As the story unfolds, the reader wants to peel back the layers of what's hiding underneath. Make sure to give them that opportunity! Take the hitchhiker for example -- Why is he out hitching a ride in the first place? Why does he wear a fancy tie, and yet he carries a backpack on his back as a displaced homeless man would? Bring the reader to that point where they just have to know!
  • But don't be vague about physical appearance -- When characters tend to be poorly fleshed out in appearance, the reader tends to feel a sense of disconnect. Although I've never read it, I remember reading reviews about Toni Morrison's 2008 novel A Mercy, a novel that seems to have flat characters, mainly because she doesn't physically flesh them out very well. And a lot of times, this is why we get disappointed at the box office. The director just had a different vision of a vague character.
  • Give your main character a flaw -- Nobody relates to a perfectly written character, mainly because in the real world we all have flaws. As readers, we want to empathize with the main character. After all, we're invested in him/her for the next 300+ pages. This has a lot to do with those layers I spoke about earlier. The flaw could also be physical, like a bad memory or scars with a story the reader is definitely going to want to know. Back to my hitchhiker -- What if he has a mysterious tattoo on his hand that peaks the reader's interest? That marked-up piece of skin could be a clue to this man's past. What if it depicts something especially violent? Now the reader is going to wonder if the person who picked him up is having second thoughts about that misleading tie.
  • Need a lift?
  • Look for people in the real world who best reflect your main characters -- It doesn't hurt to envision a certain actor as that mysterious hitchhiker with tie and tattoo and thumb out for a ride. Who comes to mind? Maybe keep a picture of that individual on hand so you have a reference back to how he looks. It can make the writing process less confusing.
Those are just a few ways when it comes to crafting your characters, but what if you're still struggling to figure out if what you're creating is going to work? Since we tend to pick and choose character traits from people we know in our lives, then here's an exercise for you to try.

When it comes to the people in your life, who is:

  • The sexiest
  • The smartest
  • The most educated
  • The most emotional
  • The best well-dressed
  • The slyest
  • The dumbest
  • The most creative
  • The happiest
  • The saddest
  • The quirkiest
  • The most ruthless
  • etc.
The list could go on and on, but chances are, we know of someone who could fit into any one of those given categories. Don't be afraid to glean from the crop you have growing right in front of you. Your characters' pieces will fit together properly if you just know where to look. And hey, you might be able to figure out what the hitchhiker is really up to!

Do you struggle with creating believable characters? Do you have any tips you'd like to share when it comes to putting together a main character?


  1. I love your post, Sister Stephanie! As a character-oriented reader I care very much about building interesting characters. Yes, I do use actors as models for physical appearance, but since my idea of “attractive” or sexy” is not based on current canons of beauty, I don´t fall into clichéd looks. My heroines tend to be short and chunky (just like I was in my youth), I favor red-haired characters, but since I write fantasy I tend to play around a little. My werewolves-heroes do keep several wolf traits even in human flesh (hairy eyebrows, the long index finger, pointy fangs, etc.) My first heroine had hair that changed hue according to her moods, and so on. When it comes to personality, my heroines tend to share my virtues and flaws, although I tend to make them more courageous and high-principled than I am. My heroes, I’m embarrassed to say, tend to embody The Man that Got away, thus they display the best qualities of those I loved in the past.

  2. I apologize profusely, Sister Mary, Mary. My mind is always somewhere else (Perhaps the Turtle Troll influenced me)but to confuse my Sisters' names is really the pits. A thousands "I am sorry!"
    Blushing Violante

  3. Great advice, Sister Mary!

    When it comes to characters, I struggle the most with making them flawed yet sympathetic at the same time. It seems especially difficult to write the protagonist because she's constantly under scrutiny by the reader! It seems like secondary characters can be a lot more flawed and get away with it. Good point about balancing physical description.

    As far as films where the actress/actor didn't fit the character in the book, I would have to say Keira Knightley seemed to me like a poor choice for Elizabeth Bennet. (Maybe because Jennifer Ehle was so perfect in that role.) I also didn't like Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones (I know some people are going to hate me for this, ha!) I've liked the actress in other roles, just not this one (and I can't explain it either. It's purely emotional!) Since you mention Twilight, I have to say I wasn't overly impressed with Pattinson as Edward Cullen (sorry fans!) or some of the actors/actresses who played his siblings. Finally, I ABSOLUTELY HATED the actress choice in the role of Fermina Daza in Love in the Times of Cholera.

    On the other hand, I think Edward Norton was absolutely PERFECT as Walter Fane in The Painted Veil, or Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer, or Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara. Some actors/actresses really own the role and you can never ever again disassociate them with the character.

  4. And now that I am finally awake.. Famous miscasting errors. Kristin Stewart as Bella, that child should be barred from acting. Everybody in the new version of Brideshead Revisited. But the worst miscasting I have ever seen were the leads in the Tv adaptation of The Winds of War . Thank Heaven they corerected that error in the sequel War and Remembrance. I didn't mind Kiera as Elizabeth Bennet, but I hated her as Lara in the BBC version of Dr. Zhivago.

  5. I am actually very pleased that Jennifer lawrence is playing Katniss Everdeen. I must say out of all the grumblings that I too have read, not a strong enough actor was not one of them (LOL!!). Winter's Bone, Like Crazy, Burning Plain, Poker House (even the films that were not as meaty a part like X-Men, The Beaver. Lawrence is an Oscar nominee and from what I've seen from the trailer (not the poster) I would say (in my humble opinion) that Katniss Everdeen is in especially good hands.

  6. I was worried about Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss at first, because she did seem too old, but I recently saw Winter's Bone and was blown away by her acting. She still might be too old, but if anyone can pull it off, it will be her.

    One of the more interesting character-driven novels I've read recently was The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom. What an enormous cast of characters she presents! Each with their own distinctive flavor. One thing I appreciated about her characterization was how carefully she worked on motivation. The main antagonist is given a good reason for being such a horrible person, and she works to make you sympathize (at least a little bit) with him. Both of the protagonists are flawed, one of them deeply: no cardboard characters here. They are each given a distinctive voice, as well. Belle is brassy and confident; Lavinia, shy and hidden.

    I'm currently reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. His has the lucky job of working with actual gods, such as Odin and Loki, so those personalities are literally archetypes, and probably were easy to flesh out. His protagonist, however, he has to create from scratch. Shadow is one of the most appealing male protags I've read in a while. He's an ex-con, physically imposing, loyal to a fault, plagued by self-doubt, and kind to little things when he doesn't have to be. An interesting mix of characteristics.

    For me, I approach character-building the way I imagine a method actor approaches their role. I try to get behind the eyes of the person I'm creating, and give them real reasons for what they are doing. I never make them move only for plot purposes: every action has to have a genuine motivation, even if I don't spell it out in the story. To me, this is the most essential way to create a believable character.

    Great post, Mary Mary!

  7. Sister Violante - There's no need to apologize if you've started the day without your morning cup of coffee! We all seem to function with fuzzy heads first thing in the morning! I like how you say you've constructed your characters. I think it's great when a writer can give someone a funky quirk or trait that intrigues the reader and just doesn't make it feel like author intrusion so he/she can be noticed on the page.

    Sister Lorena - I'm gonna have to agree with you on Pattinson and Zellweger. First, because I've never liked Renee Zellweger as an actress so I have few problems avoiding watching something she's in. As for Pattinson, whatever! Those books and films are so overrated and I have yet to understand why they have become catnip for audiences.

    Anon - I agree. I believe Jennifer Lawrence will do well in the role as Katniss. It's just every actor has his/her naysayers . . .

    Sister Steph - I have picked up The Kitchen House and I am reading. I think it's going to be good like you said! I can't wait to discuss it when I'm done!


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