Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Characters welcome

I’ve started watching TMZ, a celebrity gossip show. Not watching in a cozy chair with a big bowl of popcorn, reveling in the nonsense that our celebrities get up to. Watching in the sense that I’m doing kitchen clean up and turn it on for background noise.

And then stand in front of the TV, dish cloth in hand, mesmerized.

It’s not the sight of Lindsay Lohan getting into her SUV or Mickey Rourke’s ravaged face that keeps me interested. It’s the cast of reporters.

I don’t know much about this show but my take is that it’s a bunch of reporters talking about footage captured that day in various spots. New York, Hollywood, Cote D’Azur. Places where movie stars and heiresses hang out. The conceit is that they pitch their favorite clips the paparazzi took that day. Mostly, they’re trying to impress Harvey Levin, the ersatz host.

Harvey’s like the dad. He stands in front of a whiteboard, with a drink (not a cool Martini but something in a reusable cup with a straw). The kids (there’s only one or two that look older than college age) introduce their clips. They vie for Harvey’s attention like siblings at the dinner table. They try to shock him, or make him laugh. Getting him to spit out his drink is a bonus. Like any good TV dad, he’s slightly befuddled by the kids’ references or appalled at their lack of knowledge of anything before 2003.

It’s the mix of characters that I find fascinating. There are a lot of archetypes in that room. There’s the brainy girl, smarter than the boys by far. There’s the iron-jawed guy with long hair with the body of a linebacker. He’s not as dumb as he looks but sometimes plays to that stereotype. There’s the edgier guy, who you know is too good for this job but he’s been caught by the bright lights and the spectacle. There’s the hot girl who often says things she shouldn’t.

Then there’s the voice of reason. Sort of the mom. In this case, it’s a 40-something guy with wonderful braids that sometimes reminds them that libel is a sueable act and that even McCauley Culkin was a cute little guy once upon a time. Tells the siblings to simmer down. “Oh, Ricky,” you can almost hear him say.

The interplay of these characters is mesmerizing. Not always predictable, yet recognizable. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding a way to imbue our characters with enough familiar characteristics so that the reader knows them but with enough edge, a secret agenda, or a dilemma that makes them interesting.

How do you people your novel with memorable characters?


Lisa Bork said...

"Characters welcome" is such a catchy marketing phrase--I love when they say it on tv.

My characters often say and do the things I cannot or would not say and do, within the realm of reason.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great idea for finding characters!

I live in the South...who ISN'T a character? :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Keith Raffel said...

Don't all the characters in the book have to be distinctive even if they only appear on one page? It can be a woman who smokes cigars, a burly man with a high-pitched voice, etc. Figuring out what will make a minor character memorable is a fun challenge in every manuscript.

Cricket McRae said...

I think your use of the word "archetypes" is key. Archetypes are universal, familiar, recognizable. Tweaking them so they're a little against type (e.g. Keith's burly man with a high-pitched voice)can be what makes them memorable.

Never have seen TMZ. Now I'll have to watch for it!

G.M. Malliet said...

TMZ is new to me, and you made it sound so addictive. Thanks, I think.