On Writing: Making Characters Distinct

Sometimes Writing rules/advice isn’t about the sexy topics of motivations, twists, archetypes, or world-buildings. Sometimes writing is really very practical

Often advice about making characters memorable is about having some sort of unheard of trait or backstory, but today I’m here to tell you that sometimes there are quite boring but important and useful ways to make sure your characters are distinctive.

Now I’m largely talking about in stories with multiple characters and as an author you want to make sure the reader not only remembers and cares about the important ones, but also very importantly can tell the difference between them.

The reasons I say this is boring and practical at times, is that authors tend to have such clarity of their own story in their heads they never realize the elements that might have their story hard for a fresh reader! So the effort here isn’t necessarily exciting or fun for the author, but may make it so for a reader (which is what we’re going for right?)

A unique physical characteristic

Good authors are masters of this trope. Having something memorable about the bodies of the characters seems almost shallow or dehumanizing (this is fiction though). So when Harry Potter has a scar (that tingled and hurts no less, so even when we don’t see it it has an impact), Tyrion Lannister is mistreated for his dwarfism (or equally Jamie is noted for his beauty) these things help a character stand out in our minds.

I don’t think it always has to be super dramatic, something notable and just for that character can be the difference between a reader having a vivid image of the character or them just fading into the background.

A haunting psychological trait

Now this one can be a bit tricky, because IMO characters that mention their trauma at every step, or overblown dramatic paragraphs about their tough backstory can actually have the opposite effect. Finding a niche element, a tendency for the character to imagine thumping people they talk to, ranting to themselves about equality (Vimes) or something akin can really distinguish a character.

A way of Being or Seeing

Similar to the psychology having a unique way that the character ‘sees’ the world can make them stand-out from the crowd (of your other characters). This could be an MC who judges people by their foot size, a serial killer who obsesses over smell. Something that makes their perspective obviously their perspective.

A role of job

On a slightly different angle having a characters with “just one job” or vocation that makes them notable is a practical way of achieving the goal of character clarity. This can often be seen in classic ‘whodunnits’ characters are often given professions, or at times other positions that make them different from each other (not to mention there is almost always only one detective in the book, maybe a side-kick or rival if you’re lucky)

Powers

Sometime that X-men, and sortof Transformers did well is have incredibly distinctive characters connected to their powers (ok ok Transformers doesn’t really have this but when they put effort it you can tell robots apart by their vehicle forms). If your story has magical or similar elements using characters’ abilities as a way to tell them apart can be really useful.

Clothes makith the Man

To steal a superhero trope – costumes, outfits and other accessories are a very durable writing method of developing character and making them memorable. It doesn’t have to be superhero outfits. Keeping characters different in attire has just the same effects in stories as it does in real life. (ish)

Really as I write this I realize there are almost infinite ways to make characters stand out, the choice of trope and method should really fit with the themes of the book. I guess the ultimately conclusion here is that this is a worthy element of a work of fiction to get right and there are many MANY options to choose from.

What ways do you think are useful to make characters distinct?

Any pitfalls to the process?

Any bizarre or interesting examples?

Weekly Writing Roundup 26.2.2023

All apologies

Last post I passed a comment on Roald Dahl books undergoing modern edits. I mistakenly referred to a short story that gave me nightmares as a child. This story, I realized throughout the week, was actually written by one PAUL JENNINGS. I know everyone was desperately confused and totally thrown by this and my whole career is in jeopardy /s

Love this author’s sketch of Rincewind

This town ain’t two enough…

This has got to be story fuel if anything else. Feel like in modern times this role would not only be unrealistic in terms of remembering that much, but also unrealistic that people would listen to the Lawspeaker.

Oof. I don’t really have any insight or comment on this. Don’t give up OP (on yourself and your writing)

Funny, but does Frodo (and the point of the book) so bad.

Always worth poking through a thread like this – while also important to remember that one person’s DNF is another’s couldn’t put down.

I wonder how long it will be before I accidently read a book by an AI without realizing (is that a form of Turing Test?). Its a scary prospect for publishers especially smaller short story magazines. I also wonder if certain indie authors are going to be struggling. Many indie authors build a niche audience in their genre and focus on quantity not quality. That’s not to say they write bad books, just that they aim for face paced publishing to entertain their select audience, instead of trying for significant sales of say 1 book a year. AI publishing could really threaten this niche.

Sir Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes

I find myself a bit lost for words for Sir Terry Pratchett’s Biography. Given that I’m working through the Discworld lately and writing multiple reviews on his books a months I sorta though I’d have more to say but I might have to dig deep to express myself about this one!

First up a big credit to Rob Wilkins, who worked as Pratchett’s PA for around 20 years and now works with the renowned author’s daughter to help manage Pratchett’s estate. It’s actually quite touching seeing Wilkins’ personal journey with Pratchett as it adds the perfect sort of lens for a biography. It’s odd, usually a biography is either too weirdly self-centred if written by the person, and too distant by others, but this book strikes a balance.

In terms of structure the book is fairly chronological with a few deviations for theme, and occasional jumps to the ‘present.’ Pratchett left many notes and had planned to do an autobiography but alas this was essentially quashed by his illness.

The first part largely deals with Pratchett’s life before full time authoring. I do confess, as with any biography without any special notes, I don’t usually find that much interest in what people’s childhoods were like or their first few jobs. There are a few good gags and a few funny stories but it took me a while to ‘crack’ this book but once the focus shifted to Pratchett’s writing career and eventually his early Alzheimer’s diagnosis I genuinely had trouble putting the book down.

In terms of writing its really interesting seeing some of how Pratchett operated as an author and his progression through his early books to the Discworld. I would have loved even more insights – the most info is about some of the first few books as in a strange sense I think when Pratchett’s career really took off there was little time for reflection, his writing schedule was ridiculous, publicity overwrought and in general there probably wasn’t much space for note taking.

Insight into Pratchett’s character was actually very interesting, and sort of oddly humbling. I didn’t realize that I was the same as many – and Neil Gaiman’s introduction to Slip of the Keyboard that revealed Pratchett as a simmering ANGRY man was a bit of a surprise. Wilkin’s description of Pratchett reveals a very eccentric, tightly wound, and strikingly rough around the edges hippie/nerd. It fascinating to hear stories about the author, who now to me seems less like a friendly grandpa and more like a furious genius.

The final chapters dealing with Pratchett’s end of life are harrowing, but I suspect to anyone who has lost a relative, strikingly familiar. Wilkins speaks about his anxieties trying to do his best for Pratchett without needlessly endangering or embarrassing him while still supporting his career. Wilkins spikes of hope but steady support of Pratchett during his decline is strangely touching. I really felt for the man realizing that he’d spent 20 years working with this brilliant author and process must have been beyond challenging.

On a final note a very brief but fascinating section details Pratchett’s struggle with getting his work on the screen. Apparently it was a huge dream of his – as he was a movie buff, yet he struggling to let go of his creative license (perhaps reasonably) so despite many an opportunity there have to date only been a few of his works brought to TV. I do love that he asks Gaiman to ensure Good Omens made it and it did – loved it!

In terms of biographies this is by far one of the most intriguing and complex I’ve read. It’s at once, illuminating, humbling, inspiring, frustrating, sad, fun, but ultimately as I said a real achievement for Wilkins who I can only imagine had mixed feelings about working through this piece of work and has done and incredibly admirable job.

Review (Discworld): The Hogfather

HO HO HO

Hogfather, I think, is one of the real stand-out editions of the Discworld. As far as I know it has the most successful (so far) screen adaption (and will be the only one Pratchett truly approved of it seems).

The book also has some really unique elements – a bit of a more committed twist to Death, an air of mystery, and one of the more complex books in terms of Discworld lore. Oh an oh course the most terrifying psychopath to grace the Discworld.

To go over each point in depth. I feel like the first few Death books had a relatively repetitive approach to the character – Death is missing or indisposed, Mort or Susan takes his place and various hijinks ensue. (Don’t get me wrong I love the other Death books) Hogfather as I said throws a much enjoyed curveball in the form of Death inexplicably taking on the mantle of Hogfather, while Susan attempts to make sense of the situation and eventually resolve it. Its a bizarre combo of intrigue and silliness that I feel only Pratchett could pull off.

To further the elements of mystery, while Discworld is hardly short of magic, but Hogfather presents a much more complex case of internal Discworld ‘structure’ The inciting incident of the story being an assassin is assigned to murder the Hogfather – a highly unusual job that said assassin uses the magic of the world to go about his task – as a crossbow or knife in the dark isn’t going to cut it. The methods of the assassin lead to several ‘real world’ issues including the creation of the Verruca gnome, and the God of Hangovers (cue magician antics).

Speaking of Mr TEAtime is possibly my most feared Discworld character, and while I like Pratchett’s dark side there is a part of me thats kinda glad he never leant hugely into some of his darker themes because his truly evil characters are truly frightening.

Not sure what else to say about Hogfather – the pacing can be a bit weird because the subplots at first feel very weird and unrelated and its only as the story winds on that it all comes together, on the other hand this book probably has the most page-time of Death which is a massive bonus!

I might have a short break as I’ve really Discworlded it up – including just finishing Pratchett’s biography so its time for a couple of weeks of other fiction just to keep my brain coherent!

Review (Discworld): Feet of Clay

Oh boy, Feet of Clay I think is one of my favourite Discworlds. (am I saying that about all of them).

I’ll have to report back after getting through the next few – but Feet of Clay feels like peace The Watch (later books I think are more Vimes). You not only given a good who-dunnit there is a raft of character development for Vimes, Carrot, Angua (and Cheri).

And in terms of the who-dunnit possibly one of the most badass and mysterious from Discworld yet. I feel like Feet of Clay has the perfect blend of fantasy and mystery in a way that feels like just the right amount of fun, action, even terror (this really feels like strong Pratchett badassery)

In terms of reflecting on this book, It’s really interesting to me that Carrot and Angua seems to be Discworld’s most complex relationship (as I mentioned a few reviews ago Pratchett relationships seems a bit cynical and doomed and misguided). I have to confess as a young person reading Feet of Clay I could never quite work out Angua’s motivations but as an adult I see the contradiction of Carrot’s personality and Angua’s situation, but I like the near-miss ending for them.

I’ve got my hands on ‘A Life in Footnotes’ so might be a bit delayed in some of the Discworld reviews and then a big review of Sir Terry’s biography! I still have to read a bit of fiction though because the biography is pretty dense!

Weekly Writing Roundup 20.2.2023

Not much writish this week but a few points of interest

Now ironically AITA these days really is a source of creative writing and this story is just a wee bit too tropey to be true for me, but it was worth a wee laugh. Do you tell your partners your pen-name?

This sort of thread pops pup semi-regularly and its always worth a flick through for any tips

I noticed a similar discussion in which people pointed out that a lot of bad guys in movies and shows lately needed to do something barbaric (the moral event horizon trope) to make them a bad guy because their motive and plans were actually too solidly good.

OK I haven’t looked at what sort of changes they are making, but dear GOD I hope they cancelled that disturbing smiley face that lived on the MCs Uvular because that story gave me nightmares my whole life.

Always always remember that feedback on creative writing is a huge gift. Truly terrible books simply don’t get good feedback they just get put down and politely forgotten about or a ‘it’s good’ or ‘it’s fine’ people who put good effort into feedback see something worthy in the story in the first place.

Keep on taking care team!

Review (Discworld): Maskerade

Why is Greebo so hot?

In a similar vein to Interesting Times, I found Maskerade to be a much refined Discworld story, complete with subplots, character development and slightly more classic twists. (that’s not to say it was absent usual Discworld and Ankh-Morpork weirdness just more story focussed than earlier pieces)

Another intriguing twist is this Witches novel is based largely in the Big City, and takes on a more whodunnit type plot, where the Witches previously tended to deal with Kings and Queens and more explicitly magic scenarios, Maskerade is a different style and it works really well.

You also get a lot more dynamics between Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax – and in my opinion more of a focus on the right/wrong character development of Weatherwax.

I have a sense that Pratchett may have really enjoyed writing this novel – one of the subplots involved a greedy publisher (super subtle) and Pratchett’s riffs on Opera are pretty fun-hearted while just at times touching on proper human nature.

(2) Weekly Writing Roundup 11.2.2023

I put the Crass in procrastination…

Let’s get onto the past fortnight of writing resources

KM Weiland who talked about writer’s block recently also shares useful thoughts on returning to writing, I imagine writers of all kinds ‘return’ after long and short breaks and this advice is pretty solid for all.

Story as a psychological journey

Now I’m not really a fan of psycho-analysis in real life. But in fiction the unconscious, the ID, Ego, Superego, Shadow, and Archetypes are all super useful for stories.

This guy gets it. I think even fiction helps the brain learn and take other people’s perspectives, and at the very least keep our thinking from becoming too rigid or stuck in an echo chamber.

While I find such thesis really interesting, I confess I struggle to make such observations myself. Even though I consider myself open minded, I often am blindsides by the assumptions of genre, and only realize links between tropes like this in hindsight (or of course if TV Tropes spells it out for me)

LOL I’ve never seen anything quite like this – as a recovering ‘must finisher’ I find things like this really helpful.

Well that’s the fortnight. I hope everyone is going well and enjoying their projects.

Nga Mihi

Review (Discworld) Interesting Times

WHUT?

Just as a beginning disclamer – for anyone who isn’t following I’ve been working through the Discworld novels for the past… (hurriedly looks this up) just over 18 months, and my reviews tend to be more personal comparisons of the first time I read the book and looking at how Pratchett’s Discworld evolved over the series.

Interesting Times has stood out to me on reread. While my initial reading had just been annoyed that I thought Rincewind was dead and/or written out of the series (something about the finality of ‘this is the last time the Universe tricks Rinc-) but I must confess not much the story really stuck with me.

But this time around I noticed a stark jump in writing quality and story craft for Interesting Times. While I already knew this was something that developed throughout the series that books went from being DnD inspired random romps to more “proper” stories – Interesting Times seemed very structured with a prologue, rising tension, and cathartic twists. (again not that earlier books didn’t have all that, just that Interesting Times seemed like a leap forward)

Anyway as to the story, we have a return of Rincewind after what seems like a longish hiatus – its really well crafted that from the events of Colour of Magic and Lite Fantastic Rincewind is sent to the Counter-weight Continent to find himself embroiled in “Interesting Times.”

I love that old friends reappear in this one in a nature and fun way (but somehow poignant too) my only real beef with Interesting Time is the pacing seemed to ramp up right to the very end where ALOT of stuff seemed to happen at once and the book is DONE. There is much to progress at the end of Interesting Times and not much time to do it!

A Discworld Analysis (in defence of Rincewind)

Even his name is cowardly

As anyone following my blog knows I’m working my way through the Discworld series. I’m finding it super interesting, especially Pratchett’s ability to create layered stories. I find it oddly funny that I never really thought of Pratchett’s works as being “fun-loving” or “comedy” not of course because they weren’t humorous, but that I always found it was the serious and intriguing themes that often ran underneath or alongside the hilarity.

Anyways one of my wonderings was kind of the deeper themes and ideas of the ongoing series. I’m not going to assess all of them, but after getting few the first 2-3 books in some I thought I would reflect.

Apologies I’m not going to cover all of them but the ‘main’ ongoing series of the early books: Rincewind, Death, Witches, and Guards.

I recently saw an r/books thread commenting that the OP couldn’t really get behind Rincewind, he was just too, well, Rincewind. He’s certainly a strange character, his core feature being cowardice, with a side-quest of cynicism and failed romances. He’s not exactly your typical protagonist, and not even very typical for your zero to hero MC (as he doesn’t manage the hero often).

As first when reading this post I found myself wondering what exactly is the attraction of Rincewind, is he meant to be funny, relatable, realistic?

I believe that the very first Discworld novels were very much born out of Pratchett’s love of Dungeons and Dragons BUT ALSO his love of subverting fantasy tropes and Rincewind seems to fit this model quite well.

That said I noticed something about Rincewind in rereading some of his books lately. Yes he is all those negatory things mentioned above, but there is something I find very interesting about the failed Wizard. While he is technically a true Discworld inhabitant, he is I believe the closest you’ll get in the Disc to an Narnia-like “Son-of-Adam” he is in fact an ordinary person in an extra-ordinary world.

Again, just to emphasize I know that he is actually a genuine Disc inhabitant, but I feel they way he responds to things and reacts is how a regular Earthling would thrown into a fantasy land. He certainly does have the sense of a naïve DnD player wondering what the heck is going on.

This is particularly notable in Faust Eric a story which is almost entirely more a riff on puns and literary interpretations of a supernatural classic.

But in saying all of this I don’t think the theme of Rincewind is ‘fish out of water’ even though that’s a context – I think its more Pratchett riffing on the absurdity of life and reality, how we’re all kinda faced with feeling like the only sane person in the room/planet or helpless in the face of the bizarre arbitrary nature of the world. Rincewind is that part of all of us that is smart enough to be constantly terrified.

Writing this I really wonder how Pratchett would have taken the past Pandemic years.

Death is a really interesting series. The obvious choice for analysis is to suggest that the theme is about Death himself becoming more and more human and kind of juxtaposing that with the consequences of a anthropomorphic force making choices about his duty.

And it is about that – but I feel intriguingly that a series about Death isn’t really about Death and mortality, its more about other big questions in life “Why is the world the way it is” This is why even though in my early post I critiqued Soul Music for having a weird mix of a Death plotline with a “Soul of Music” thing, but in terms of themes it makes sense. Pratchett clearly values music and believes that it is some sort of inalienable ‘heart-beat’ of reality.

Similarly in Reaper Man while the overt plot was Death being fired, the themes were very much about the passage of time and progress, how new replaces old (but sometimes shouldn’t).

I haven’t got up to my reread of Hogfather yet but my recollection is that its very much about human values like justice not being ‘real’ and yet being all the more important.

The Guards are quite a tricky one. They’ve always been my favourite focus, perhaps because they are in many respects the more straightforward characters, at least in terms of traditional fantasy story telling they are a rag-tag ensemble of city guards coming up against Dragons, ‘Gonnes’ and Golems. It is interesting though that many of the Guards stories read more like whodunnits than fantasy stories (sort of).

In terms of deeper themes I couldn’t really look further than the brilliant tagonism between Vimes and Carrot. Like many young fools I assumed the story of Guards Guards would be basically Carrot slaying the dragon and assuming the mantle of King but in defiance of the Cabal that summoned the dragon (in early days I didn’t realize how subversive Pratchett was).

What I think the Guards series is really about is how can ordinary folk fare in the face of politics, and the machinations of mad despots and manipulative but brilliant Patricians (more on that later).

Pratchett uses Vimes and Carrot as two important dichotomies in life, optimistism and pessism, experience and passion, hope and street-smarts. I feel throughout the series Carrot and Vimes rub off on each other the best ways, leading to Carrot honing his naivety into something almost like a cunning weapon, while Vimes learns to have some faith in progress.

Just a quick note on Veteranari, a strange character in the Disc, who I think at first was supposed to be a fairly sinister background tyrant, however as Ankh-Morpork and the Discworld evovled he turned into a more benevolent manipulator figure. It’s hard to know what Pratchett himself thought about the character, if he believed this was the ideal ruler, a cynical representation of how he thought politics worked, or perhaps just the only sort of person he thought could run a city like Ankh.

Trying to analyse the witches left me feeling a bit bamboozled at first. Esme Weatherwax is such an interesting complex character, between her iron-clad morals somehow fitting in with her borderline abusive pride and patronizing approach to the other witches I had trouble making sense of what these stories were really about – despite them always feeling meaningful.

Then I realized that all their plots involve Kings and Queens, and/or power squabbles. Within many of the stories is an internal battle of Granny Weatherwax. I mentioned in the Guards paragraph that I wasn’t sure if Veternari was supposed to be an ideal ruler, whereas in the Witches series Pratchett frequently riffs on ethics of rulership, whether through their interactions with the King/fool of Lancre, Elves, the Fairy God Mother or (looking forward to rereading Carpe Jugulam) Vampires.

I think through Granny Weatherwax Pratchett explores ideas like how you sometimes can’t do the right thing AND be nice or how the overtly wrong thing might be right if you look at the bigger picture.

My suspicion is that in later books I’ll have trouble overanalysing them, as they sort of get deeper and more complex as the Discworld novels progress (with the likes of Jingo, and Night Watch) but I look forward to a year ahead of more Discworld.