Crafting Diverse (Personality-Wise) Characters

First, I’m going to send you to this link. This is a great article by Write World about how to make sure your characters are each unique with their own set of personality traits. I’m sure you’ve run into this problem before, where your own characters are starting to all sound alike or – oh geez – the characters in the book you’re reading are all starting to have the same personality. Needless to say, it’s not a lot of fun to write or read.

I do it a little different than the way WW does it, however, that’s mostly because I’m lazy. When I’m looking to create a character and I don’t have their personality set in stone, I like to do the initial five-part personality and stop there. From what I’ve learned, their smaller personality traits will come out as you write, but it’s those main five that serve as their driving forces. I don’t like to just pick whatever I want, though. A lot of the time, I’ll choose completely random personality traits and try to find a way to make them cohesive.

Let me give you an example using Belkor from Death Defiant. Now, Bel is an old character that I’ve had for awhile, so they sort of had a personality, but since I hadn’t written with them in a while, I decided I needed to flesh them out. I opened up WW’s list of Virtues and Vices, as well as a random letter generator. Bel is a good character, so I decided to make sure they have three virtues and two vices. I generated a random letter for the first Virtue (“O”), so I went to the list of O’s and decided on optimism. Then I did the same for the Vices list, picking a vice that began with the next letter the generator gave me. Once I had three vices and two virtues, I stopped.

While I was doing this, however, I was also thinking about Bel’s role in the story. Bel is a fallen angel, so one of their vices needs to be something that could lead to their fall, but not something that could discredit them as a good person. I kept this in mind as I was picking their traits, and eventually I ended up with: Optimism, Rightness, Bluntness, Aggressiveness, and Playfulness. Most of these were traits that I’d already had in mind, but being forced to write them down and choose allowed me to create a more well-rounded, flawed character.

Suddenly, I was finding it a lot easier to write Belkor and be satisfied with the way I was writing them. I had these guidelines, and since they were written down, I could more easily identify when they were acting out of character.

I’ve even used this with characters with more concrete personalities. Vincent from Antanama is a very vivid character in my head, but I wanted to make sure that I had his personality down pat and that I could easily describe him. Laziness is his number one attribute, since it defines everything he does in life. However, he’s also inventive, haughty, nonviolent, and caring. Once I wrote this down, it really helped clarify his character for me because I could see the conflicts within himself. He’s caring, but he’s lazy, so while he might want to help you, he might not feel like it. He’s inventive, especially when creating weapons, but his nonviolence causes him to destroy what he makes and not share it with people.

Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into each character, but this exercise serves as a good way to get started and to make sure you have a grasp on who your character is before you start doing too much with them.

Stay-At-Home Meal

Rosa sat in the corner of the living room, tablet balanced on her lap and tried to ignore the influx of rotting companions coming in through the door. None of them were as healthy as Mei, each one sporting a black decayed ear, shriveled skin, or smoky eyes. After her gaze had lingered too long, she focused back on her book. She’d finally found something in Spanish after a long time of searching, and it would be her only company for the night.

Rosa had asked Mei if she could just stay in the guest room, but she’d been denied. Even after living together for a month, Mei didn’t trust having Rosa out of her sight for longer than she had to be. The party was concentrated in the block of space next to the kitchen, where some kind of game with tiles and weird money was being played. Strange, wavering music played from small speakers on the kitchen counter, with cups of clear alcohol provided for every guest. The sight of the huge jug of booze made Rosa uneasy.

She stared at her book for fifteen minutes, but couldn’t get past the third page.

Quickly, she moved only her eyes to look over at the table. Ten zombies here, and three of them kept looking at her; at least, she thought they were. It was hard to tell since their eyes were black spheres, but sometimes they would tilt their chins or turn their heads towards her. One of the ones with his back to her turned just enough that he must have been able to see her out of the corner of his eye.

She looked back to her book.

Throughout the night, she kept touching the oval-shaped metal over her throat. She’d turned the translator off once the first guest arrived. Whatever they had to say, she didn’t want to hear it. Despite this, she could still pick out Mei’s voice from the crowd. She didn’t understand a word, but sometimes she caught the strangest thing – laughter. At those times when the antanama would start laughing, Rosa would look up, amazed. She’d never seen Mei smile, let alone laugh, and she’d find herself staring at the green-tinted woman until the zomb went back to playing the game in earnest.

Whatever they were doing with that game, they were drinking along with it and growing louder. Rosa managed to power through a decent portion of her book. She laid the tablet down on her seat and went to the restroom. After delaying there for some time – she really didn’t want to go back to the living room – she finally returned.

Only a couple antanamae sat at the game table now. Most were in the kitchen, waiting next to Mei as she distributed chunks of preserved organs from the fridge. A few guests looked significantly better in contrast with when they’d arrived, the healing properties of the meals working quickly.

Most importantly, however, was that there was an antanama in Rosa’s chair – the same one who’d kept turning his head to look at her. She sighed and made sure the earpiece of her translator was fully in before switching it on.

“Excuse me. I was sitting there,” she said.

He looked up at her, eyes narrowing. The flesh of his cheeks was a deeper green than the rest of his skin, and she wondered if that was what a blush was supposed to look like.

“This how Mei stays so goddamn healthy?” he asked. “Keeps stay-at-home meals?”

All pretense of manners were gone. “Move,” she said.

She quickly glanced over at the kitchen. Mei had her back to them, providing drinks for her guests with laughter and oral jabs. The conversation between Rosa and the antanama would be covered by the music. When she brought her eyes back to the man in her chair, he had stood. He shoved her back a few feet, looming over her until she had her back against the wall. She didn’t back down, though. She stared, thick brows converged into an angry line.

“You know how long I’ve been waiting to get some new fucking intestines?” he said, bearing his teeth. “Four months while that shit rots inside me. Meanwhile, Mei’s got a whole damn buffet sitting at home. How much of you has she eaten already?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

He went to grab her throat, and she immediately grabbed his face, pulling at his ears and nose and whatever soft, fleshy protrusion she could get her hands on. She jammed a finger deep into his ear and he dropped her with a curse, leaving her sputtering on the ground.

The antanama’s face brimmed with rage, and he glared down at Rosa, snarling his words.

“I’m gonna tear-”

Before he could finish, the sound of bone hitting flesh reverberated through the room and he was on the ground, too. Rosa skittered away as fast she could, putting the attacker – Mei – between them.

“I allow you into my home, provide you with food and entertainment, and this is how you repay me?” Mei asked.

There it was – the voice Rosa was familiar with. Quiet, foreboding, demanding the listener’s careful attention. Her sleeveless shirt meant that the muscle of her arms was on display, toned and flexed. She still had some scars from the naval mission a month back, having not yet dined on skin to heal it.

The man turned and sat with his back to the wall, cradling a cheek as he looked up at her.

“The government give you that bitch?”

Mei looked unfazed. “The only reason I’m not killing you right now is because I don’t want to stain the carpet.”

The other party attendants were silent, watching. The stereo’s speakers continued to play the warbling music, the fast beats an odd backdrop to the situation. Mei seemed to contemplate something, then, before he could say anything, she grabbed the man by the hair and pulled him to his feet. He fought her, but he was much more drunk than she was, barely able to control his motions. Even if they’d both been sober, Rosa knew Mei would have taken him easily. She wrenched him across the apartment to the front door, then threw him outside.

Rosa sighed, happy that it was over. As she stood, however, she noticed that Mei hadn’t come back inside; she’d followed him. The party-goers ran outside, and Rosa did, too, unable to restrain herself.  Mei and the man were out in the courtyard of the apartment complexes, a simple garden on the top floor of the building with stone benches and immaculate sculptures of famous antanamae. The man rattled off insults, trying to hit Mei when he could. He only landed one or two decent hits, but then she wrenched his arms around. The sound of breaking bones made Rosa cringe.

The man began to cry.

“I’ll tell you what, Gang. I’ll leave you alone today,” said Mei. He’d fallen to his knees, sobbing as his arms hung uselessly from their sockets. “But if I ever see you again, I’ll rip those decaying intestines from your carcass. Understand?”

His “fuck you” was only barely audible.

Mei slammed his skull into the edge of one of the benches so hard that when she pulled back, the skull was cracked and dark green blood and brain pushed from the extreme fracture. Rosa knew without a doubt he was dead.

Mei walked up to Rosa and glanced her over.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No.”

After looking to the others, Mei flicked her head dismissively. Everyone went inside just long enough to grab their belongings, and then left. Mei cleaned up the game table, and Rosa busied herself by washing cups. They didn’t speak until the apartment was clean and Rosa was heading for her room.

“I might’ve found someone who can take you home,” said Mei, sitting on the couch. “I’ve still gotta check him out, but if things go well…”

Rosa lingered in the doorway and nodded.

“Okay,” she said, “thanks.” A moment passed, and she added, “You didn’t have to kill him.”

“You don’t know me very well.”

“I don’t, but still.” Rosa pressed her lips together. “He was an asshole, and honestly, I’m still of the idea that the world would be a better place without antanamae, but he was just a drunk asshole.” She glanced to the front door. “Are you going to leave him out there?”

“The worst my boss will do to me is make us have a one on one meeting about the importance of discretion,” Mei said. “So yes. Unless you feel like taking him to the dumpster?”

She didn’t.

“Well, then, leave it be.” Mei kicked off her boots and said the command prompt to turn on the entertainment screen hanging on the wall. “I’m a government-sanctioned killer, Anarosa. No one’s going to care – especially not about scum like him.”

The human nodded, despite disagreeing.

“Thanks for sticking up for me, anyway.”

“I still owe you.”

Rosa sank back into the guest bedroom she’d been occupying for the last month. The bed was welcome, and she curled up happily beneath the blankets. The night was over, thank God, and soon she might be able to go home. Her heart clenched at the thought of it. What did she have to go home to anymore?

She set those thoughts aside, and instead focused on the idea of her house, the converted convenience store from a hundred years back with the strange, delightful paintings on the wall and the portrait of her family… She buried her face in her pillow and sighed, wondering if she could suffocate herself before she ever went back.

Monday Tropes: OCD (and Other Mental Illnesses)

I could write an entire book on the way Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other mental illnesses are misrepresented in fiction, often to an appalling degree. MI is often used to add drama to a story, but OCD in particular is often treated as an amusing quirk in a person’s life, often with few real side effects.

I love Friends, but that doesn't mean it's perfect.

I love Friends, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

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Secondhand Embarrassment from Your Own Characters

I experience a lot of secondhand embarrassment for people – both fictional and real. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stop reading something to gather myself, because wow, this character is hurting me right now. (Please stop. Oh god, don’t do – oh, you’re doing the thing, Jesus Christ, why.)

A phenomenon I haven’t heard of, however, is getting secondhand embarrassment from one’s own characters. So I wanted to put this question out there: do you?

I know I do. Most of my characters manage to stay away from super awkward situations, but one – Vincent, a main character in Antanama – says a lot of things that make me groan. The best part is that he’s not embarrassed at all! He says things as he likes when he likes, everyone else be damned. So when a guy wakes up next to him and asks what happened last night, Vince has no problem answering, “We stumbled over here together, got a room, had some good, old-fashioned hate-humping, you threw up in the bathroom, and when I woke up, you were all cuddled up to me. Like I said, you’re very cute.” Meanwhile, I’ve got the indent of a hand permanently on my forehead because of how hard I’m facepalming. Vincent has no problem using the term “hate-humping” or doing exceptionally embarrassing things, but as a writer, I can’t help but shake my head at him. Of course, I’m not going to cut something like that; that’s who he is, and that’s what he says. But that doesn’t mean I’m pleased with it.

What about you, fellow writers? Do your characters ever end up doing or saying something so awkwardly dumb that it gives you physically pain? I’d love to hear some stories, if any of you are up for it.

The Monster with Melting Eyes

The entire island was taken in the dim light of morning. Three of our ships surrounded the main living area. Missiles of light shot from over our heads into the heart of the main city, disintegrating three buildings and all the nightmares inside. The other soldiers and I rushed towards the shore, our water-skating vehicles leaving the ships we called home far behind us..

I see them as we get closer – green-skinned, rotting wretches coming from their brick and mortar nests. My garrison’s water-skater hits the sand, and we rise from the seats slightly. I keep my gun at the ready, teeth grinding like the vehicle’s gears as its spindly legs push out from the bottom and run us up into the city.

We reach the town square, a pathetic island of concrete with a single statue in the middle. We’ve caught them well off guard, and no one has raised a fight yet. Another white missile launches into the city, into a group of houses nestled in the hillside. They go up in flames and debris. Bits of rock fall on us as we hop out of the uncovered vehicle.

My garrison moves north, towards the burning buildings. A hive of windows and doors is on our level, but as we near it, we see them up close for the first time.

They’re more grotesque than I had ever imagined. Some of them have flesh falling off their bodies, exposing bone and sick, green blood. The three coming at us are behemoths, made to pulverize human flesh. Rippling muscle coats their bodies, and they rush at us, ready to crush our skulls and devour us, eyes complete black and filled with hatred.

But they’re unarmed, and they fall like normal men to our attacks, bodies convulsing from the electrified bullets.

Taking the island will be easy.

We move through each building, exterminating as we go, watching the green-colored corpses pile up. One of the other soldiers – I can’t remember his name – and I split off from our garrison to check a series of shops. He checks the back rooms while I go through a series of isles. As I kick over a suspicious-looking box, he screams.

I rush after him, and when I come into the back office, the soldier is squirming on the floor, both eyes torn from their sockets. Sitting over him, a zombie – practically a girl – chews, sobbing all the while.

“Please,” she begs, looking towards me. One of her black eyes appears deflated, melting out of her skull. My comrade’s eyes in her mouth muffle her words. “Please, I just want to see again. I’m starving, and I just want to see.”

Her hungry eyes begin to take shape as she swallows, becoming more natural, more human, almost. My face contorts in disgust, and in a fit of rage for my fellow soldier, I pull out my knife and lunge at her. The monster screams as I drive my blade into her neck. Small hands grab at my jacket as I stab her heart, her brain, those disgusting eyes that repair themselves even as I attack.

She looks less beastly when I’m finished, even if her body is ripped apart. At least she’s dead. I go to my comrade, barely able to lift him with my blood-slick hands, and put his arm around my my neck.

“I killed it,” I tell him, but he can’t hear me over his own sobs.

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From his bedroom, Vincent heard the  front door open. His heart surged, and he stood, knocking over empty bottles of alcohol as he stumbled out towards the living room. A huge grin came over his face, and he didn’t care if he looked like a kid or an idiot or whatever, because Mom was –

His neck nearly snapped from how hard he stopped, toes never crossing the threshold into the kitchen. A man stood there, sifting through a huge pack on the table. He looked up. Crow’s feet stretched from the corners of his eyes and mouth, but otherwise his age didn’t show. Vincent thought his dad looked younger every time he returned home.

“The house is a mess,” said Dad, gesturing with one hand to the kitchen while the other continued to dig countless books out of the bag. Mud stained the off-white floors, and the dishes piled high in the sink, surrounded by several large, empty bottles and mysterious remnants of what might have once been food. “Did your Mom have to go off for work, too? She’s not going to be happy if she finds out you threw a party.”

Vincent stared at him, saying nothing. He couldn’t get anything past his throat. His stomach curled at the mention of her, and his eyes grew hot, but he didn’t say anything. Dad looked back at him and narrowed his eyes, then set the last book down on the table before stepping towards his son.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, then smiled slightly. “Look, I know she’s scary, but I won’t tell-”

“Mom’s dead.”

The smile dropped immediately. Dad stared at him, body tense, but he never asked for Vincent to repeat it. He never asked if it was true. He only asked –

“Why?”

“She got-” Vincent stopped, throat closing up around the words. His body couldn’t bear to let them out, to say it truthfully to another human being. This was his father, and he couldn’t brush it off with “She was old, anyway”s or “Early inheritance to me, then, eh?”s. Being a shit kid wasn’t going to help now, not with enough liquor in his system that he might get sick enough to follow his mother into the grave.

He tried to say it again, but instead he choked on tears. He ducked his head. Body curling forward in pain, his hands covered his face. He didn’t notice when his father came and embraced him, started to cry himself. For the first time in a very, very long time, Vincent didn’t try to push him away, either. He let his dad be his dad for once, and they stood beneath the doorway and cried.

Several minutes later, Vincent collected himself, taking a step away from his father so he could dry his eyes with his palms. His father did the same. Without a word, they went to the living room. Dad brushed crumbs from the couch before he sat.

“Are all these bottles yours?” he asked.

Vincent shook his head.

“That’s good.” He cleared his throat and stared at his hands. “How long has she…?”

“About a week,” Vince managed after clearing his throat. “I thought having a party might make it easier.”

His father didn’t need to ask if it had worked.

“I saw some antanamae on this last expedition,” Dad said after awhile. “I managed to get some pictures, too.”

Admittedly, it piqued Vincent’s interest. The idea of seeing an actual photograph delighted him, but then he thought about them – green, mutated, cannibals. Some said the antanamae were aliens, others said they were mutated humans. There were a lot of people who claimed they were he dead risen. So he shook his head and chuckled, rubbing at his eyes.

“Shit, Dad. You’re worse at this grieving thing than I am.”

“I wasn’t the one who threw a rager, was I?”

“God, you’re so old. ‘Rager’? Seriously?”

They both laughed, the kind of sad, aching laugh you make when you can’t find anything funny anymore, that died off slowly because you tried to cling to it for as long as possible, because if the laughter stopped, the real world would rush right back in.

Dad said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”

Vincent shrugged. “It’s not like I expected more from you.”

“I’m going to try to be a better father. I haven’t been great in the past, and I know it. I’m gone all the time and-”

“Father, stop.” Vince looked up, eyes hardened slightly. The usual hard lines of his mouth and brow, reserved specifically for his father, returned. “You’re sick with grief, and you’re saying stuff that you don’t mean. Don’t say something if you’re not going to keep your word. I’m done with that shit.”

Dad opened his mouth, ready to argue, then shut it. He hung his head.

“I miss your mom,” he murmured.

Vincent stood, scoffing. Every moment of his father’s absence, every argument, every glare, every broken promise flashed through his head. He walked past his father to his bedroom. Let him pick up all this trash. He lay down on his bed and dug around the sides, searching for just a little more liquor among the dirty bottles, food wrappers, and used condoms. When he came up empty-handed, he lay back down and threw his arm over his eyes, wondering if he could fall asleep again.

I miss her, too.

Understanding your Characters

I was scrolling through tumblr yesterday when I saw this post of someone complaining about “rich, play boy, handsome, egotistical” male characters and how stories these days can’t seem to survive without them. Admittedly, the phrase sent panic through me.

That almost perfectly describes Vincent, I thought, thinking about one of my main characters from Antanama. Oh, god, I done goofed.

I read the rest of the post, saw it had some sage advice, and then I thought about that trope of a character. He really does seem to exist in everything, doesn’t he? And I had unknowingly played into that very simple character…

Hadn’t I?

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