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21 December 2008 @ 03:11 pm
Personalities for all the Good Boys & Girls  
So. As I start sequel-writing for SHIVER in earnest, I've been doing a lot of thought about characters and what makes a book successful. See, the funny thing about sequels is that you inherit a lot of characters from the original book, and you end up with an epic cast of thousands. So my first instinct was to panic about balancing all these characters and keeping them distinct and giving them all face time and not letting them take over from my main characters and keeping things simple, stupid.

And then, I realized, with a flash of brilliant clarity no doubt inspired by the six cups of tea that I'd drunk that morning, that having a lot of characters, each with a distinct personality, isn't a problem. It's a goal.

How, you may ask, did I come to this conclusion?

Harry Potter.

In case you've been living under a rock that's nowhere near televisions, radios, bookstores, or teens, Harry Potter is wildly successful -- both the books and the movies.

Personally, I like to take successful things apart and look at how they got that way. And yes, there are whispers of luck and promo and overhype and whatever, but the point is, you don't get as wildly successful as Harry Potter without having Something.

And this is my (vastly over-simplifying) theory. What makes Harry Potter a thing of cult fan fiction and beaming followers is the same thing that works for Buffy: a full realized world that feels like you can keep digging forever and never get to the bottom of it, and characters that have distinct, predictable personalities, all the way down to the tertiary character level and whatever it is that comes after the tertiary level.

You can take almost any character from the Harry Potter books, drop them in a brand-new scenario, and easily imagine what their reaction would be. It doesn't matter what the situation is, you can predict the reaction, because the character isn't an x factor.

You put Snape, Dumbledore, Hermione, into any given situation, and we're going to expect snark, wisdom, and pragmatism from them, respectively. Are their characters over-simplified? Yeah, I guess so. Are they exaggerated for effect? Heck, yeah. It's like what they say about showing gestures on stage -- you make them bigger so that they can be seen from the back row. They're bigger-that-life personalities, caricatures of real people.

Mourning subtlety yet? Don't. Because here's what my caffeine-induced epiphany also considered. The rewards of such simplified characters is that the audience and the writer gets to work half as hard to get a good emotional response. It's why sitcoms work so well, right? Because sometimes a scene is funny without any set up at all, just because you know a certain character is about to react badly to a given situation.

Or sometimes a scene is painful for the same reason. The character groundwork's been laid and you know that when you say "mudblood" around Hermione, she's going to wince, while Ron would just roll his eyes and maybe let his voice crack.

The beauty to Harry Potter is that every character has this level of personality, down to the creepy janitor guy with the cat. It adds an incredible richness to the world. Even though any one of these characters could make an awesome main character, they never steal the show. They never bring their cool stories to overshadow the main plot. But you know they're there. It's kind of a dynamite thing: to have a story populated with only people with personalities.

Does this sound obvious to you? It sort of sounds obvious to me. So why is it that I seem to forget until the revisions stage how important it is to bestow deep, well-rounded personalities to everyone in my book?

Like a blockhead, I find myself leaving the development of my secondary and tertiary characters to chance in the first draft. They get personalities by the end, yeah, but their default setting until then is plot device.

With my latest WIP, LINGER, I'm taking a page out of reality show producers' playbooks. They don't know what the plot/ conflict will be yet - but they do know while casting that they can choose people with personalities designed for clashing and fireworks. Angst and drama.

I love me some angst and drama.

So instead of being afraid of my large cast of characters that I've inherited from SHIVER, I'm going to embrace it. Instead of being worried that all of my fun side characters with their fun backstories might eclipse the main plot, I'm going to see what I can do to show everyone's sordid past in glimpses. I am going to do my darnedest to make this a world full of personalities. In under 100,000 words. That's the goal, anyway.

So what do you guys think about personalities? What's your style? Subtle? Over the top? Many? Few? What do you wish you could do better?

and . . . because I have to, when I'm talking about HP:


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