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Eccentricities vs. Character Building: The Fine Line Between Awesome & Creepy

If you want an old character to be awesome and enjoyable, you can give the character some personality quirks (eccentricities) that make the character unique, unexpected, and hilarious (see “2 Types of Kick-ass Old Characters That People Love“). So what do you do if you want to make the old person (or any character) creepy and horrifying? Easy. Give them personality quirks.

Wait. What?

Yeah, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. Personality quirks can make a character awesome or creepy or annoying (or something else). In fact, the same personality quirks could do any of the 3. For example, saying whatever comes to mind:

            “This boot makes a great hat!”

Let’s say that Aunt Mabel (who can’t sew but loves quilting bees, bakes delicious cookies for visitors, and would never hurt a fly except in defense of her houseplants) said this as she pulled a boot out of the closet and stuck it on her head. Assuming that the characters around her shake their heads and chuckle, the audience is liable to be amused, too (unless this is simply not their style of fiction).

On the other hand, if a maniacal serial killer (with blood splattered across her face, a dead body at her feet, and a big toothy smile) said this as she pulled the dripping boot off the corpse’s body and puts it on her head, it’d be a whole other story. The characters around her wouldn’t laugh unless they were hysterical or equally twisted, and the reader is more likely to be shocked, disgusted, or horrified than amused.

And if the main character’s kid sister (who never shuts up, has the energy of a humming bird, and has the bad tendency of following the main character around and ignoring any hints or commands to stop) said it in a store as she grabs a boot off the rack and sticks it on her head giggling (after doing similarly time-consuming and pointless stuff for the last half-hour), the main character’s more likely to explode with irritation and spent patience – and the reader will probably cheer.

These are 3 very distinct reactions to the same statement made by a female character. The quirk of blurting out whatever she thinks is the same, too. But that’s only a minor facet of the characterization. Core values, context, actions, and character interactions are all bigger parts of the character than his/her quirks. Those big details shape the reader’s response far more than the eccentricity alone.

Think of eccentricities as an optional spice in a recipe. Yes, having the spice and putting it in can make the recipe better. But you can make the recipe without it. You can’t, however, make the recipe by adding that spice and leaving out other non-optional (A.K.A. essential) ingredients.

So you can’t rely on a quirk alone, and you need to make sure that the character building backs up the quirk for the effect you want. The first (a character with plenty of eccentricities but no real depth) ends up becoming a caricature instead of a strong character. The second option could turn your lovable, hilarious, and awesome kung fu master into a creepy, villainous, or annoying kung fu master that the main character really shouldn’t listen to. It’s a surprisingly easy transition.

Long story short: eccentricities are great, but character building is everything.

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With Dialect, What Words You Say Are as Important as How You Say Them

One reason that some authors say not to write in dialect at all is that syntax and word choice can be used to suggest a dialect, region, or first language without modifying the words whatsoever. For example, in the U.S., specific kinds of pronoun errors are common to more rural areas (also often poorer areas with worse education though not always).

“I got them books,” “They gave it to her and I,” “Clay and me bought two,” etc.

Alternately, putting words in the wrong order is a common way to suggest that English isn’t a character’s first language. Sentence structure can vary greatly from language to language, and small order errors can be telling. With ESL, it’s very common to drop articles and prepositions or to put adjectives in the wrong place (See “The 10 Most Common ESL Mistakes” by Scribendi). Another useful mistake is using the wrong synonym for a word with multiple meanings (“I tried to novel a room at the hotel”) or for more extreme examples, completely reordering the sentence: an example of this Yoda’s speech patterns are.

Actually, Yoda’s speech patterns are more similar to the syntax of languages like Japanese where the verb usually comes last (after the subject and object, which can vary in order). For Russian speakers, on the other hand, it is more common for books and movies to change the syntax to verb-object-subject-verb (“Knows this, everyone does.”). I don’t know much about Russian, so I can’t say how close that is to the Russian language – but it has become the usual dialect tactic.

Of course, if you know a language well, you can better adjust the errors that a character raised on that language might make when speaking English (by following the rules of the first language instead). Otherwise, researching the linguistics might be slower and more painful than paying attention to what kind of syntax and word choice other authors and screenwriters use to suggest that accent or origin.

But wait – there’s more.

Besides errors, you can also use slang, jargon, idioms, and colloquialisms to give an impression of dialect as well as general characterization. The use of “lass” implies Scotland while “cher” is more New Orleans, “sugar” is general South, and so on. Whether a character calls part of the car a “fender” or a “bumper” tells more than we realize. While it’s easy to think of that as more characterization, that type of characterization strongly influences how we read dialogue.

Try imagining “as useful as a milk pail under a bull” in an upperclass British dialect. Now, try to hear “Bob’s your uncle” in a strong Appalachian accent. It’s kind of hard to do, isn’t it? (And yet hilarious).

Since each phrase is strongly associated with a specific accent (because the phrase itself is more likely to be heard in a specific region), you don’t need to modify the words at all to bring that accent to mind. The reader automatically assumes those words are read in that accent.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use the other method. In fact, errors and word choice can work very well with word modification to communicate a dialect without becoming overly complicated or confusing. And with the added characterization, it’s a win-win situation. If you want to show, not tell when it comes to character background and dialect, a character’s word choice is one of the best tools you have.

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The 29th of February: Anomaly & Inspiration

Happy 29th of February! Enjoy it while you can since it won’t be around for another 4 years. The actual day, that is. But leap year or February 29th could be in your book.

Leap Year is one of those weird true stories that is so ingrained into our culture that we accept it without really thinking about it. Yes, there are 365 days in a year except on leap year when there are 366. And millennial years are another exception (it gets confusing). Anyway, this sort of detail is exactly the type of worldbuilding that makes a world start to feel real.

Our world isn’t perfect, especially society-wise (understatement), so we associate reality with a flawed system. Little quirks like this add a sense of reality to the system, and they can be used in a variety of ways – beyond setting.

  • prophecy: the day could be added every 400 years. Prophecy’s love crap like that.
  • plot conflict: have you ever screwed up something because you forgot it was leap year? It happens, believe me.
  • characterization: people with birthdays on February 29th only have birthdays every 4 years. That means at the actual age of 96, you would turn 24 on your birthday. Your great-grandkids could be older than you (put that together with prophecy, and you have a lot of potential.).

Actually, if you combined those three in a unique world, you could have a whole story. I can see it now: the main character can’t go off to school because you have to have x number of birthdays first, the higher ups had dismissed her as fodder for the prophecy because she’s too old, and the combination leads to an adventure where she ends up saving the world. Oh, it’ll be beautiful.

Or you could write something else and have February 29th come up in a bit of banter on page 172. You know, whatever floats your boat.

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Baby Naming Resources for Expectant Authors

Any time someone walks into my office, there’s a 9/10 chance that they’ll take a look at my bookshelf, see a baby naming book, and say, “Something you want to tell me?” (The other 1 out of 10 times, the person walking in isn’t a smart aleck.)

Yes, I have a baby naming book on my shelf. Actually, it’s the same one my parents used way back when. I picked it up in high school to name a character for a story, and it’s been on my shelf ever since (with permission). It’s a great resource for male and female names from various cultures. You can get one at any book store to add to your personal writing library (support your local bookstore!).

Or you can look online.

There are all kinds of baby name sites. In fact, there are so many that there’s no point in me listing them here for you. I don’t even use the same one each time. Instead, I google the type of name I want (for example, “name meaning trickster”). Then, I look at however many websites I have to until I find what I need.

I’ve found that when I’m searching for a name with a certain meaning, different sites pop up than when I want to explore names from a specific culture. There are even sites that list the most popular names from different years (which can be useful if you want to set a story in a specific period). Starting with a search engine rather than a single site keeps me from missing potential names – it even pulls up forums where other people have asked for and gotten suggestions for names for characters.

Long story short, baby naming books and websites aren’t just for expectant mothers. They’re extremely useful for writers out to name characters – or worlds or devices. Whatever you want, really. Not just babies.