Updated: Aug 24
Remember "C1" (my niece of the astonishingly large vocabulary) from yesterday's email? Last night, her mother posted on Facebook about their adventures at the doctor's office. She included a list of quotes from "C1" that left me in stitches, capped off with this gem:
"WHOOSH! I need a cupcake and a pickle. I am tiiiiiii-red."
Where does "C1" come up with this stuff? (Granted, I've been saying that about her since she was two.)
But this amusing episode reminded me of an important tip for writing. Whether we write fiction or nonfiction, most of us will write about people at some point. And people have nuances and quirks.
Some writers tend to take a one-dimensional approach to the people in their works. These authors focus on one characteristic (or a narrow set of them) of each person and treat them as if these qualities alone define them. Here are a few (extreme, in some cases) examples:
Adolf Hitler was a madman.
Mother Teresa was a passionate charity worker.
The clone troopers in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones "are totally obedient, taking any order without question."
In the original Scarlet Pimpernel novels, Percy (almost) never loses his cool.
Now, these things could be true. But even if they are (and I have serious doubts about the "Hitler = madman" theory), they're not the whole story by any means. And if an author persists in writing as if these qualities are the whole story, problems arise:
At best, it's unethical to diagnose a person you've never met, even if you're a trained and accredited mental-health professional. And if a dubiously reached conclusion is the premise of an entire work, how are audiences supposed to trust anything the author says? No matter how divisive the subject of a work, authors need to meet the accepted standards of proof in their fields.
According to Mother Teresa's posthumously published writings, she struggled with periods of feeling isolated from God. Portraying her as unwaveringly dedicated to her cause would leave out this important part of her story.
Real people don't typically take orders without question, so how are audiences supposed to relate to the clone troopers? (This may be why the clones become more free-thinking in the TV shows and comic books created after Attack of the Clones.)
No one is completely unflappable all the time. This characterization makes Percy seem unrealistic and, in turn, difficult to relate to, even though the audience admires his cunning.
So how do we make sure we're not turning our characters or subjects into cardboard cutouts? We need to get to know these people as well as we can. Do your research.
For real people, talk to them if possible. Even if you can't, learn as much as you can about them. Read both what they've written and what's been written about them. Listen to them on audio recordings, if available. Look for what makes this person tick, both in public and in private.
For fictional characters, try using one of the many available character questionnaires to help you decipher who this person is. Then add some quirks to the mix.
One helpful technique I've learned from roleplaying games is "give them a limp and an eyepatch." In other words, use one physical quirk and one behavioral quirk. For example, a person might bite her nails when she's nervous and have a freckle in between her toes.
For bonus points, make a quirk completely at odds with the rest of this person's character, such as having tough-as-nails cop secretly like rom-coms.
In both cases, specifics are the key. The broad strokes of a life--someone's career, past trauma, relationships with family members, and so on--are the skeleton of your work, but the details are the flesh on those bones. Even just knowing how a person likes their coffee can humanize them for your audience.
Try it out and let me know how it goes!
P.S. Ready to put some flesh on your characters' bones? I can help. Click here to book a discovery call now!
(Thanks to Clément Falize for sharing their work on Unsplash.)