So excited to have Aiki Flinthart on the blog today. I’m recovering from knee surgery and Aiki generously stepped in for me and is sharing about creating unique characters. Aiki describes every pantser’s nightmare below, *grin* but don’t panic. You would go through all the same steps to pants your way through this, you’d just do it through a first draft and a lot of rewriting.
As authors, we all know that she who makes the reader cry, wins. If a reader connects strongly to your character, then they will react emotionally to the character’s conflicts.
But, for many genres, it’s not the external conflict the reader gets caught up in – it’s the internal conflict; the character’s feelings about what’s happening. That’s where the treasure lies.
So how do we ensure the reader cries when we want them to? Or laughs? Or gets angry?
By creating characters the reader identifies with in some way. Then showing how that character reacts, so the reader can easily imagine themselves in the story.
A Personal Challenge
A couple of years ago I wanted to improve my ability to write unique character voices, in close first person POV, with deep emotional connections for the readers.
Sounds good, huh?
Yep. Except that I like to make things hard for myself and chose to create a mosaic novel – a collection of intertwined short stories that all advance an overarching narrative.
But wait! It gets trickier.
Set in 1486 London, Blackbirds Sing consists of 24 short stories, each from a DIFFERENT woman’s POV. Each story is stand-alone, but also interlinked with the larger narrative (someone trying to kill Henry VII). And various POV characters pop in and out of each other’s stories for continuity.
One of my readers has called it the literary equivalent of a quadruple back somersault.
It certainly wasn’t easy.
And the hardest part was creating so many unique voices, unique backgrounds, and unique emotional reactions to conflicts. Twenty-four different characters that people cared about enough to cry over in just 4500-word short stories! Sheer madness.
Readers Bring Their Own Past Experiences To A Story
When the book came out, I sat back, biting my nails. Would it work?
Then I started getting message from readers. So many said they’d loved this character or that; cried at various points; stayed up all night reading.
You know what was most interesting?
Different readers cried over different characters.
I counted that as a win. It meant readers were bonding deeply with all the characters. They cared when terrible things happened to these women.
Here’s how it worked.
Planning Twenty-Four Unique Characters
To begin with, I ensured the overarching narrative, the novel’s theme, and the internal conflicts/character arcs for every POV character were all closely related. Then I made sure that each short story’s external conflict also revolved around the central, universal theme. (The sacrifices people make to protect their families, lives, livelihoods).
Next, I meticulously created the POV characters – resulting in a very large, complicated spreadsheet. (I’m sure there are better ways of doing that part!)
I started with their birth-personality (use whatever personality profiling system you like) then layered on backstory influences – traumas, culture, family life, physical and mental limitations/issues, mental health, wants, needs, occupation, etc etc.
Then I noted their dialogue and physical tics – the ways of speaking or moving that indicate to a reader which character is talking even if you’re not using dialogue tags. So every character had a unique way of speaking, favourite words they used, way of swearing – all of which reflected their upbringing, personality, and education.
And when they were under the influence of a strong emotion, their dialogue would change – perhaps become faster or choppy when they were angry; halting and hesitant when they were feeling vulnerable; sullen and monosyllabic when hurt; etc.
They also each had a unique stress-tell. A physical action to show the reader the character was upset or worried. Perhaps rubbing at their skirt, fiddling with hair, or twisting rosary beads etc.
Additionally, I worked out how they filtered the world – what they noticed around them. That’s usually based on either their occupation and hobbies/interests, or on their emotional state/priorities. A pessimistic work-a-holic girl who’s frightened and walking the streets alone at night will notice different things than a scatterbrained optimistic girl who’s partying on with a group of friends as she strolls home. The frightened girl will jump at noises and shadows that the party girl won’t even notice.
The spreadsheet noted each one of these traits for each of the 24 POV characters, so I could keep their reactions consistent.
Lastly, came 24 internet images – one for each woman – based on physical appearance and personality. If the character was 40-year-old dark haired woman with a happy-go-lucky optimist personality, I’d google ‘happy middle aged woman with dark hair’ until I found an image that suited. It helped to remind me of how she would most likely react to conflict, and how to describe her facial and body movements to reflect her emotions.
All of these things, when added in as little details to each scene, help immerse a reader into the character’s feelings without ever having to say, “Sarah felt frightened.”
Of course, not all characters need that level of creation information. But even listing personality, dialogue tics, and physical tics for a minion will help the reader to understand what each character is feeling, and to distinguish between various characters. Which, in turn, helps them connect with the one they love best.
Show Your Character’s Priorities – Don’t Get Distracted
Spend time creating a fully-fleshed human for your POV characters before you launch into writing the entire novel. Whether you use a spreadsheet or do some freewriting from that character’s POV, it doesn’t matter.
Just learn how each character thinks, reacts, swears, talks, moves etc. Then use that information to show the reader how the character feels about the conflict.
One more crucial thing: leave out the distractions – the details that don’t show us what’s important to the POV character.
Keep only what will make your reader understand or care more deeply about your POV character/s. Keep only what makes each character – each person – unique and fascinating. Keep only what will make us smile, or laugh, gasp, or cry.
What’s your process for creating unique character voices in a multiple POV story?
Aiki Flinthart has 14 published speculative fiction novels, two collections of short fiction, two non-fiction author craft books, several short stories in anthologies and e-mags, a romance novel, and has edited several short story anthologies. She has been three times shortlisted in the Australian Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction, and a top-8 finalist in the USA Writers of the Future Competition. When not writing or running her business, she teaches workshops to authors, trains in martial arts, knife-throwing, archery, and lute-playing. Every once in a while she even sleeps. Find Aiki on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.