Reading Tina Connolly’s book Ironskin has got me thinking about how I differentiate my characters from one another. You have to be able to differentiate your characters, because if the reader can’t tell your characters apart – well, how are they going to like them, root for them, any of that necessary stuff? (Yes, I just called character development necessary stuff.)
Anyway, you’ve got to do it. I’m sure you already knew that. The question is how you’re going to do it. How they speak? How they don’t speak? How they interact with other people? The clothes they wear? That’s all up to you. Ironskin has me thinking about character development because there’s a particular example of character development that has stuck with me, because I’m honestly not sure if it worked with me or not. It was almost a little too weird. But maybe the fact that it stuck with me shows that it did?
I’ll just get to describing it, shall I? The little girl character, who is supposed to be a little weird, given, on several occasions , is said to “clack.” I think that this is meant to describe a noise she makes with her tongue. I think because I don’t know, because I can’t find a place where the book actually says she made the noise with her tongue. I could have missed it.
The problem I have with saying that the little girl “clacked” is that every single time I read that, I was thrown from the story. I couldn’t picture it. Couldn’t hear it. Or I could, but it just seemed like such a bizarre response to what was going on in the novel that I had to backtrack and ask myself, “Did I read that right?”
And every time, yes, it did actually say that she clacked.
Now, I’ve never met a little girl that clacked. This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Or that they shouldn’t exist in a fantasy novel. It’s just… something like that, a strange habit of one of the main characters, requires a little more explanation than what was given to the “clacking.” Which, from what I read, was just about none. And if the explanation distracts from the story, maybe your character shouldn’t have that particular tic. In my reading of Ironskin I would say that the clacking did distract me from the story. It threw me every time.
However, you do have to differentiate your characters. And maybe, just maybe, I need to take into account the fact that the author might have meant to do that. She wanted this little kid to be weird, even weird enough to make me go ‘really? now that’s weird.’ And if that’s the case, it did its job. But why? Why would you want to do that?
I’m not sure there’s a real answer here, or even a solid way to judge one way or the other. Whether or not it works for each reader will be based solely on preference, temperament, and other individual traits. Maybe there are people that read Ironskin and didn’t blink once when a little girl clacked. All I can say is that it didn’t work for me, but it also got me paying better attention to how I develop and differentiate my characters.
What about you? How do you make your characters unique, or what have you seen out there that has or hasn’t worked for you?