Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Guest Post: People Are Complicated!

Thanks to fellow Y5 writer McKenzie Barham for the following guest post!

Sometimes I walk into Publix and have a meltdown. Not because of the aisles and aisles of delicious food, or the deli bar or even the cute little stand  with balloons.... Nope. I freak out because I see people.

Now, I am homeschooled, but I’m pretty normal for a homeschooler. I have a couple friends and I don’t wear culots and stuff, although I still battle my sci-fi obsession. So why do people freak me out?

well... I’m  a writer. I like to write books. Books which usually include characters. And you know what?


Grocery stores are the perfect example of my frequent frustration. You only get a glimpse of people at grocery stores- the screaming toddler in the parking lot - the old man in the scooter grocery thing - the flirting employees on the toilet paper aisle. (I have actually witnessed this - very awkward.) But these grocery store glimpses can be so revealing! The way people interact (or don’t) , the ways they walk - heck, the way they push their buggies can be revealing.

Now don’t be deceived - you might think you have that sweet, little white-haired lady all figured out. You think she’s buying that cake mix to surprise her grandchildren (all twenty of them) when they come over for Christmas dinner. But is that all there is to this woman? What about her hopes? Her dreams? What she REALLY thinks about her twenty grandchildren? For all you know she could be a world champion kick boxer and could be obtaining a degree in marine biology - just for the fun of it. 

Sooooooooooo... what does this have to do with writing? I’m so glad you asked. :) 

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with how complicated people are... but at the same time I find myself underwhelmed with how flat my characters seem. I read all these fantastic books and think, wow, I could never pull off a character like that. How do I get inside the head of someone that well? Well enough to accurately portray them so that my readers and I are on exactly the same page?

First of all - no one is boring. When was the last time you met a truly boring person? I bet never... because if you start paying attention you can find something interesting about anyone. (This helps your social life too - trust me, I’m homeschooled.) I also think people’s imaginations are much stronger than we give them credit for. They’re good at filling in details for themselves - just give them something to work with. You don’t have to figure every single, minuscule character until you have Multiple Personality Disorder. (I have a villain who kills a lot of people because of this.)

Second of all... your readers will never entirely be on the same page as you. Hopefully the same story and characters but someone is going to hate your favorite character and love the dumb pushover character and have a strange fascination with the one that makes you gag. Give them the important things - which doesn’t necessarily require a full body description - and let them form their own opinions. Write what interests YOU about the character... but don’t feel like you have to explain everything. We’re not dumb. Okay, some of us might be but let’s just generalize for the sake of my blog post. 

Oh no! Wait!! What about the reeeeeeeeeally important chars? Like the main ones? The ones that you dream about day and night and never get any rest because they’re always bothering you and asking you stupid questions - oh your’s don’t do that? *Awkward*

Well... for those of you that do have these problems here is my wise and treasured advice: 

Figuring out your character is going to be just as much a journey for you as it will be your readers. You can’t know everything from the beginning and you won’t know everything in the end. (That’s deep wisdom right there, people.. I’m going to be a philosopher when I grow up...) You might have to write a little teensy paragraph of a back story to help you out. You might have to start from their flipping birth! Or you could be like me who ended up writing one of my darling characters a whole freaking book just to figure him out. 

Yeah. Guess what? He still surprises me.

But what if all of this doesn’t work?! What if McKenzie is just not helpful and as wise as she thinks she is? 

Here is the last of my sage advice: Let me tell you about Julian. 

Julian was a character that made his debut appearance during my Nanowrimo novel this year. Julian was boring. I know - people are never boring. But he broke, shattered and absolutely pulverized this rule. He made me cringe to think about. So I broke one of the Seven Deadly Sins of writing.

I started basing him off of one of my friends. *insert screaming fury of a thousand writer punishers* I knew it was bad. But it was Nano and I was desperate. Now please cover your eyes and scroll through this part....

It worked!! 

Let me back track. I was truly and utterly stuck. I knew what I wanted and I had no idea how to write it. So I started looking for someone who in some way, shape or form reminded me of Julian. I will reiterate the advice I’ve read: Don’t be a stalker!! (Which I wasn’t. I hope.) Don’t be obvious because that could get super awkward and painful. (Especially if the character dies or is the black-hearted villain.)

But play with their personality quirks and try them on your flat characters. When you write, you draw from what you know about the people around you anyway, unless you live in a dungeon with only rats for friends... I think it’s perfectly all right if you pay a little extra attention sometimes. (To the people, not the rats.)

When I finished my book on November 30, I felt like my character had definitely evolved from My Nameless Friend to, well, just Julian. I had to find an example of the kind of spirit I wanted to capture but Julian didn’t turn out to be a carbon copy. He’s got quite a large unique personality now - sometimes I want to slap him and sometimes I want to marry him. But think of him as Julian - no one else. 

I broke a rule, sure, but I think I had to to find Julian. Julian is still similar to my nameless friend, but that’s probably only obvious to me, and I’m really and truly pleased with the way he turned out.

Why did it work so well?

Well... ‘cause people are complicated. :)

McKenzie Barham is a fun-sized, book-obsessed redhead who plans on taking over the world with her writing group (the Y5), becoming a multi-billionaire, and then (with the Y5) building a cabin in the mountains with a Beauty and the Beast library. At the moment, however, she is slightly distracted by finishing high-school and surviving Ms. Angela’s humanities classes. ;) She can be found on Twitter as @Love_Kenzie or at her blog: The Other Side of Sorrow.


  1. I don't actually believe in the "don't base characters on your friends" maxim -- but I do think it's important to make them unrecognizable on some level, because you immediately put yourself in a position where you have to either write a fairly flawless character or risk pissing off one of your friends. So when drawing inspiration from people I know, I try to pick one strong aspect and then temper it with other traits the real person doesn't share.

    Great post, McKenzie!

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one! It's definitely a tricky business but it's worked so far. :)

    Thanks so much!!

  3. Great post McKenzie! I agree it can be a fine line but drawing on our experiences and those we know is what makes our writing OURS. :)