What Keeps Characters from all sounding alike?by Guest Blogger Susan Page Davis
I am co-authoring the Hearts of Oak series with my son Jim. The first book, The Seafaring Women of the Vera B., has a large ensemble cast, mostly women. One challenge has been to make each character distinct and memorable.
Five elements I try to address when creating characters are appearance, speech, background, behavior and inner being. When we meet a person, her appearance is usually what we notice first, followed by speech. As we get to know her, we learn about her background and observe her behavior. All of these give clues to her inner being.
When introducing a new character in a book, the author usually gives at least a minimal description. Here’s the initial description of Carrie O’Dell, who works as a barmaid in a tavern:
A blond woman in a low-cut silk dress stood before them. The scent of her perfume mingled with the smells of liquor, tobacco smoke, and sawdust.
“Carrie,” Gypsy said, “this is Mrs. Packard, from the Vera B.”
Carrie looked Alice up and down as Alice took in the barmaid’s lip rouge, powder, and jewelry. The stones in her garish necklace and earrings were too large to be real.
I haven’t mentioned Carrie’s age, which might be helpful to the reader. Other attributes that could give a clearer picture of the person include height, weight, race, eye color, and health concerns. As a health concern, Gypsy, the boatswain, has a limp, brought on by an old wound. Mannerisms for Carrie include glancing over her shoulder frequently to make sure her boss doesn’t see her talking to people he disapproves of.
A character’s speech can add color to the story and anchor the speaker in her time period and location. It can also distinguish her from the other characters.
Accent, diction, and colloquialisms are part of our speech, as well as our “voice,” or way of speaking—our attitude. Speech patterns also fall into this category. Does the character stutter, have a fondness for puns, or tend to spout off on marginally related topics?
In The Seafaring Women, the story opens in the harbor at Melbourne, Australia. The main character, Alice Packard, is the widow of an American ship’s captain. She’s from New England, so she talks like me—or the way I would have if I’d lived in 1854. Her loyal boatswain is also American, but his speech is less correct than Alice’s, and he uses more slang of the time and nautical jargon.
The women Alice takes on as her crew, however, are mostly Australians. Some of them were born in other countries and came to Australia for varied reasons. Nell Tillman was born in England but transported as a convict for petty theft. Sarah Fiske is an aristocrat who came to Australia with her husband, Lord Dunbar. Lizzie Henshaw is Lady Dunbar’s personal maid. She often acts more snobbish than her mistress. Sonja Frantzen is a Norwegian fisherman’s orphan daughter. Hanna McKay is an Australian farm wife. Then we have the young women fleeing the brothel. We have Irish and Scottish girls, and a woman adopted by an aboriginal tribe when she was very young, as well as several born in Australia. They have distinct, but sometimes subtle, speech patterns.
Variety and memorable traits help keep our characters distinct in the reader’s mind. Next month, I’ll discuss characters’ background and behavior.
Susan Page Davis is the author of more than sixty Christian novels and novellas. Her historical novels have won numerous awards, including the Carol Award, the Will Rogers Medallion for Western Fiction, and the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Contest.
Co-author James Samuel Davis is Susan’s son. He’s a writer who has traveled in Australia, China, Micronesia, and Alaska. He resides in rural Travelers Rest, S.C., with his wife and seven children.
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