Best selling mystery writer, Bill Noel, knows a thing or two about characters. In developing the many quirky people who inhabit his Folly Beach Mystery series, he always brings the story around to the every day people involved and how they react when put into extreme circumstances. While adding rich texture to each one, they never come across as anything but genuine. His legion of fans often write about how they keep looking for Chris Landrum and the gang every time they visit the popular beach hangout a few miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. Bill has been kind enough to offer up his thoughts on creating a memorable character for your next novel.
CHARACTER VERSUS CARICATURE: HOW MUCH REALITY IS TOO MUCH WHEN DESCRIBING A UNIQUE CHARACTER
There’s a fine line between a memorable character and a caricature, especially when writing about someone who has distinct, repetitive quirks. For example, when does describing a character’s outlandish attire cross the line? Or, how many times does a character need to say “you know” before it becomes a farcical distortion of the common affliction. The distinctions become even more razor thin when writing about a humorous character—remember, humor is often based on exaggeration and absurdity.
Let’s return to “you know,” the often-used vocalized pause known as a “filler” by linguists. We all know people who utter these simple, yet irritating, two words or their close cousins “like” and “umm” nearly as often as they take a breath. I’d wager that each of us hears these words daily. Those who use them—and I’m not excluding myself–utter them subconsciously and after a while stop hearing them. In our day-to-day conversations we repeat ourselves, interrupt each other, shortcut things we know the listener already knows, clutter the dialog with filler, and often treat sentences like the horizon, never ending.
Now to the problem in writing. Effective written dialog must be convincing, flow smoothly, and ring true. Yet if we write dialog exactly like we speak, umm, it would read, you know, disjointed, confusing, and like downright irritating. The person speaking would appear to be a caricature and true accuracy would detract rather than ring true.
The earlier example of extreme dress, or more accurately, telling your reader repeatedly about a character’s unique attire, also has the opposite than desired effect on the reader.
Do we want our readers to see, feel, and even touch the characteristics that make our characters unique? Absolutely. Do we want our readers to believe the dialog is authentic to the character speaking? You bet. But this can be achieved, umm, without constantly, you know, repeating the filler each time the character speaks, you know. Or, without pointing out the distinct wardrobe every time the character appears in a scene.
Mention the unique characteristics heavily at the beginning of the story, much more lightly throughout the manuscript. Your readers will internalize these unique traits and will hear, or see, them the rest of the time. Readers’ minds have the amazing propensity for filling in the blanks. Let them do the work for you.