Sunday, June 23, 2013

Keeping Characters in Character

Be warned, I'm just going to gripe here: I really don't like it when I get to read some new material involving a character I know well, and then the words on the page just don't fit that character. Maybe it's the dialogue that isn't right, or maybe it's how he or she acts. In either case, I'm disappointed and usually quit reading.

And I know I'm not alone. I truly believe it's our responsibility as writers to make sure we do whatever it takes to get our characters right. Even if the difference seems insignificant (she smiles and says "Thank you" to someone who helped her, when she should be muttering complaints instead, to save her pride), a character who's out of character can really kill a reading mood.

Blatant neglect of this responsibility is a big chunk of what gives fan fiction such a bad name, in my opinion. Pick up any random Star Trek paperback and see if the characters speak, move and think like the ones you know from the screen. Chances are, they won't. As a writer, I find that embarrassing.

Usually, the author has made one of these two mistakes:

  • The characters seem like bobble-heads. They are shallow, exaggerated mimics of their 'real' versions, repeating their signature lines or gestures as often as possible, but not actually thinking, reacting or making decisions like the 'real' characters would.
  • The characters are blank. The only way you know they're supposed to be the same people you saw on TV is because you read their names. Otherwise, they're just strangers. Sometimes it's even hard to tell them apart because they all speak and act alike.
There's just no substitute for getting to know your characters, whether you created them or someone else did. And if you have trouble getting one or two of them right, maybe you know a writer who would enjoy tweaking them for you.

I'll leave you with a scene I wrote involving some characters from Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The mercurial bartender Quark is chatting with my own creation, named Faine:

"I hope you realize those are valuable antiques now," Quark lectured. "You could make some very good money on some of those, some security for your children's future."

"Yeah, I thought about that. I just don't know where I would sell anything."

"I could help you with that," he offered.

"So that's what this is all about," I nodded, looking him in the eyes.

He turned his palms out and explained, "I have some business connections, and I'd like to help you out."

"I was thinking of selling my purse," I admitted. "I replicated a bag just like it to take home with me."

"Mmm," he grumbled, suddenly unimpressed. "What's a phone?"

"A communications device."

"I might be able to get you a little something for that."

"Thanks," I said, "but I'm going to need it."

"Can't you get another one?" he asked. "Say it was stolen. Come on, a pretty girl like you?"

"It would take time to replace it, Quark," I answered, "and the second I get back I'm going to use it to call my kids."

Quark made a sympathetic grunt and shook his head. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but you're not going to be able to do that."

"What do you mean?"

"It's already been through one temporal anomaly. It may not work already. You take it through another one, the circuits will be fried for sure."

"Thanks for the heads-up," I said, and turned around to scan the crowd. Two tables away, a pretty Asian lady nursed a mug and chatted with a ruddy man with curly hair. He wore the gold uniform of an engineer, and I thought I detected kindness in their faces. I grabbed my drink and headed over.

"Can I help you?" the man asked in a mild brogue, glaring at me and puffing his chest out just a little. The woman only looked mildly curious.

"I'm sorry to bother you," I said, "but this is kind of urgent. I'm Faine Channing. I belong in the 21st Century."

"Yes, I know who you are." He stared up at me blankly, like I was taking too long.

"It's very important that I call my children as soon as I get back to my own time," I explained quickly. "I have this device, it's a called a phone, and - "

"Wait a minute," he interrupted. "Can you slow down? I want to be sure I understand ya."

"Why don't you sit down?" asked the lady.

"Thank you." I pulled out the chair I'd been standing over, and sat.

"Who told ya the circuits were fried?" the man asked when I'd explained.


"Don't believe everything that man tells ya," he preached. "Ninety percent of the time he's only after your latinum, and the other ten he's after your skirt."

"Miles!" the lady protested.

Miles turned to her. "Well, it's true," he argued, "and Faine here has the right to know."

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