Note from Josh: My son Joe is off from eighth grade this week for Spring Break. He saw me sitting down to write the blog this evening, and asked if he could do it for me. He said he’d been thinking about character, and wanted to explore it. He shooed me off my computer, patted me on the head, and yelled a bit later that he was done and could I have a look. I tell you—sometimes good advice comes through experience and deep, thought-provoking examples. And sometimes it’s through Loony Tunes, Enjoy.
Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
What’s the first thing that draws your attention to something? Color? Size? Overall flashiness? Whatever the case, these first impressions help leave an important mark, whether positive or negative. When you write a book, however, these cannot help you. Unless you’re writing a picture book, you must rely on your own writing to draw peoples’ attention to something—give an image in peoples’ minds about what this thing looks like. In terms of characters, you must look to personality, which can be incredibly difficult for many writers.
You see, whether the character is good or villainous, something about him/her must rope you in. Some key facet must intrigue you or interest you. At best, these characters transcend the written word; knowing how they feel or what they’re doing is a major matter of importance to you, and you want to see what happens next. In the hero/heroine’s case, you want to see them defeat the bad guy and escape safely without dying (which, leave us be frank, is rare for literary characters these days). In the villain’s case, you want to see how they meet their doom, or how they are put off until the next encounter. If a character is poorly written, you couldn’t care less about what they do or what happens to them. They strike you as having no personality whatsoever.
A prime example of personality lifting a character to superstardom is that of Bugs Bunny. Not a literary character, I know, but bear with me. The rabbit we know and love actually began life as a screwy bunny known unofficially as “Happy Rabbit”. Even his creators admitted that he was little more than Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit, with some elements of Goofy and Woody Woodpecker for good measure. Viewers couldn’t care less what happened to this irritating screwball; some may have preferred to see the rabbit hastily shot. Basically, he had no personality. He was all cartoon and no character. But, through revisions, directors began changing the bunny. Director Tex Avery completely revised Bugs, and even after that, directors added more, and within less than ten years, Bugs Bunny, as we know him and love him, reached complete fruition. And why did they not simply abandon him after his early failures? As some directors put it, while they were drawing Bugs’ misadventures, they became Bugs. If something happened to Bugs, it de facto happened to them, and they needed to be as clever as the character they drew to get out of it.
This is an important key to giving a character a personality: you need to care about the character yourself before you get everyone else to. If a writer gets completely roped into the story-where he or she, as said before, experiences what the character experiences through their writing—they put the emotions of the character right onto the paper. You can imagine some writers catching their breath after writing a swordfight, or sighing with happiness after writing a happier scene. And this literary form of method acting pays: you care, your readers care, and the book is a success.
Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Gale, Peter Pan, Atticus Finch: if you’ve read the books these characters have starred in, you basically have been them for all the time you’ve read the book. They grip you and instill a bit of themselves in you. The best writers do this effortlessly, but no fear: the more trying, the better you get, even if you’re an established author. And always remember: there is no such thing as too much personality. Even a little makes a huge difference.