Being True to Character

In a professional sense, this time. Something I’ve noticed recently is the lack of professional attitude in story characters. It’s disappointing, even if I understand how much work goes into the story.

The character can’t be identifiable by a reader as a fraud, out of place/time, or using the wrong objects/words. A priest doesn’t walk around saying things that undermine the calling.

If I’m writing a character who’s a musician, I need a lot of help. I’m tone deaf, so for the character to feel real, I need to understand music. Or get someone who knows all about it to help me (this is what I usually do, because if I don’t know bass from alto …).

If I’m writing a character who’s a cook but not a chef, I need to know how ingredients go together. If it’s a chef, I need to know how they organise the menu, what’s expected of the restaurant by customers. What level of skill they have, where they got it (it influences what and how they cook – French is not Italian!).

If I’m writing about a character who drives a truck long distance, and I name a vehicle that isn’t a long-hauler …

What it all boils down to is that each character is not only unique, they have their skills and attitudes, they have jobs and professions, they belong to multiple orders within their society. Choir, church, school, etc. Each of these places has a stylistic lexicon where an outsider will get picked up as a stranger because they use the wrong words in the context.

It’s a matter of time and place, too. A fantasy may not have a pub, but they may have an inn. Historical facts play their part. Getting it right keeps the reader involved, getting it wrong not only annoys the reader (yes, I’m a reader first) it stops them getting the next story/book.

When writing these characters, I tend to simplify the lexicon, but ensure the professionalism and use of language remain true to both character and environment. Nothing like a soldier who doesn’t understand what patrol means, or back-chats a superior officer, or misuses a weapon. Or isn’t in the right uniform!

Getting it right takes effort and time and research (maybe even an interview), but it’s worth it. Be real. Be true. Be the person in the story, live their life for a moment – but to do that, there can’t be any of those places where the reader stops and says, ‘but they wouldn’t do/say that!’

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30 thoughts on “Being True to Character

  1. Yep, getting a character right takes lots of research. Well, I guess if you use yourself and your own activities, that’d be different, but the most dangerous thing I do is navigate the ice cream aisle at the grocery store.

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    • I have a story for that! The icecream hides the jewels …

      However, I think using yourself has limits, too, because we assume so much. It’s best to research stuff you know from a different perspective to get the widest understanding (I was a mainframe coder; it doesn’t mean I know how to code apps).

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      • I found inspiration in some very strange places. Mine often begin with newspaper articles. Then, I end up researching philosophy and studies. For my latest story it took me two months and even then, I have not even gotten to the crown jewels.

        I am thinking, perhaps, I may find a publisist at this rate. Coding is hard for me but, I tell you what – storyboarding and writing is fun!

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  2. Yep. I’m finding it interesting writing my ancient Greek farce and tweaking the personalities so that they are relatable (and amusing) to modern readers. But… I don’t use the word Hell (not Greek), and I’ve had to avoid concepts like time/distance measurements that wouldn’t have been in use then. Ten feet or three metres? Nope, I’ll use ‘paces’. And seconds/minutes only make sense with modern time pieces. It’s certainly made me pause, back-up and rewrite.

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    • I had to do the same thing when I wrote an alien scifi story, to the point of constructing a ‘language’ for them. My betas, however, pointed out that it was too much, so I compromised. When the scene is in close third person pov, I’ll use terms that are either understandable – like paces – or that I’ve ‘taught’ the reader to recognize – such as wingspan or fingerwidth. When I step back from the characters, I use standard English such as minutes and hours. It’s a fudge, but the story is alien enough without forcing the Reader to do yet more work. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Exactly – I think you’ve got a good compromise there. Keeping it ‘real’ for the alien characters is important but I’ve read stuff that uses made-up measurements & it doesn’t help the reader. There’s a fine line you have to tread to keep something ‘authentic’ but also understandable. I also shy away from excessive tech data because a) there’s a risk of getting it wrong & b) even if you’re making up a spaceship warp drive, no-one cares. You need just enough info to give credibility. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Hi babbitman. I don’t write hard scifi because I simply don’t have the technical background but… when I read, I do prefer my scifi to be at least ‘possible’. That’s why I don’t usually read a lot of space opera. That said, I have made some exceptions. ๐Ÿ˜€
        Have you read any of the Poor Man series by Elliot Kay? The story is both space opera and military scifi, but the characters and the story are so strong, they silence my internal critic completely. lol

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      • I’m not aware of Elliot Kay but will check him out. Space opera can be big in scale which means the writer can concentrate on big things, rather than technical minutiae. I’m a big fan of Iain M Banks and Alistair Reynolds, who both give you just enough tech to make the story work. Banks was always interested in human / AI interaction but there’s very little technical detail about how things work. It’s a bit like magic. Reynolds, however, is an astrophysicist so you get more science, but it adds to the story rather than getting in the way. I highly recommend Pushing Ice; really intriguing premise but driven by 2 excellent female lead characters. ๐Ÿ˜Š

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      • Oh I love Banks! His Feersum Engin is one of my all time favourites. I’ve read some of Reynolds and enjoyed it but…not to the same degree. I’ll check Pushing Ice out, and thanks for the recommendation. I rather enjoyed Peter Watts’ Firefall, but it’s not an easy read. Ditto Kim Stanley Robinson.

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      • High Five! We’ve just become kindred spirits. ๐Ÿ˜€ The Wasp Factory was the first of his books I ever read and from there I searched out everything I could find. Was over the moon when I found his scifi. ๐Ÿ˜€

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      • It’s so far out and far away, in time and space, that it doesn’t feel like scifi to me, but I love his characters in any and every world. Was devastated when he died. Such a talent. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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  3. This was an interesting post. I really like the way you put things together it made a lot of sense. One of the things I liked most about this was the fact that most writers donโ€™t think about the profession of their characters and how it may affect how they behave in real life or in a professional sense. We are affected by what we do for a living in all aspects of our lives, so this can also pertain to how characters behave in their family life, with friends, and with acquaintances. Itโ€™s a matter of perspective, and I think a lot of us writers tend to forget this part or aspect of the characters make up. Thanks for sharing your opinion and your knowledge. Keep creating! CSA

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  4. Oh the serendipity! There was only football on the ABC last night as I was cooking dinner so I switched to one of the commercial channels, and lo..a commercial came on. It was for one of those companies that supplies the ingredients for meals so ‘all’ the consumer has to do is, um, cook. Well…just before the parade of luscious looking meals ended, there was a shot of someone taking an unpeeled, brown onion and cutting it lengthways – i.e. from root end to stalk end.
    I hate to be a cooking snob but you NEVER cut an onion like that. I laughed, and I suspect everyone who knows anything at all about cooking laughed too, not the reaction you’d want from a commercial of that kind. So yes, staying true to the skill is as important as staying true to the ‘character’.

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    • Unless the person was from one of the African nations, where they cut their onions with the knife in one hand, the onion in the other, and standing up! I could never do that, but they work without tables. The onion is always chunked (large dices, but not like I dice!).

      Of course, the person could be one of the non-cooking variety (of which I am ashamed to say I belong to (it’s why my fosters learned to cook — fast — or they’d have to eat my fare)), or someone who cuts it in half first, then does the whack a cleaver moment (I love watching Asian cooks doing cleaver work).

      Can you tell I watch these things carefully so I can learn how to do stuff without losing too many digits?

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      • -giggles- yup, I noticed. I’ll do a post one day on the safe way to chop an onion. :p

        I’m pretty sure the hands doing the faux cutting were Caucasion so I suspect they belonged to a non-cook. Or, more worrying, the person who conceived the advert was a non-cook…and the company selling the food didn’t notice!

        I won’t name and shame, but if you ever see that ad, maybe stay away from the food. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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      • Same. And of course it tastes as good! If you factor in the time it takes to buy all those ingredients, pack them, put them in a box and deliver them, even the average supermarket fodder is fresher. And if you grow some of your own, and pick it when it’s actually ripe, the flavour is just so much better. Even simple food tastes wonderful when it’s fresh. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Ah, poorly drawn characters. Yes, I know of these. Too many of them appeared in my ms. Fortunately, the people who appraised it found them all and told me to send them packing, and gave me hints to flesh out the main ones. God writing is hard. But fun. So much fun. ๐Ÿ™‚

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