Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fat Characters

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Too much pumpkin pie and trimmings got me thinking about fat characters

not fat in the literal sense, but more overdone (a little like my turkey this year .. sorry sweetie!)

I am reading a book right now that is almost comical in its character tells:

the grandma picks her ears

the sister twirls her hair

the father snorts constantly

the dark, mean antagonist licks his lips to no end

it's all a little too much.

Now, I am all for a well placed character tell here and there -- but too many can make your otherwise dark and scary novel into a Mel Brooks production (bring out your dead!)

It's sad really, because this novel has great potential and I want so badly to stop giggling at the overwritten characters long enough to enjoy it.

Oh well, at least I can learn from it. It caused me to go back to my WIP and cut out a few of my own overwritten characteristics. All things in moderation, right?

Know this: I totally use character tells. They can really enhance a piece and make you feel more connected to the characters. I am just seeing how they can also distract from a piece if overdone.

Questions: how do you use character tells? do you agree that they can be overdone? have you seen that? done that? weigh in!
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38 comments:

Karen said...

Guilty of it, but I'm sending them all to Biggest Loser to trim down a bit. :)

Tabitha Bird said...

Oh LOL about the licking lips, hair picking, snorting characters. I might be a bit the other way. I give sparse details like that.

Terresa said...

I just finished reading "The lost symbol" by Brown and I thought some of the character traits were completely cliche, too fat, too much. The uber-tattooed bad guy w/the creepy hidden dungeon in the basement. The smart, rich, good girl. Etc.

Still, entertaining stuff but I think he could've changed it up a bit. maybe I was expecting more.

Great post!

Paul Greci said...

Yes, I agree that a well-placed character tell can be beneficial. If you use too many then you take away from the power of the other-wise well-placed ones.

Tess said...

Karen: love that analogy :)

Tabitha: it IS making me laugh...and the book is supposed to be serious so it's frustrating and really funny all at the same time. Not the reaction the author intended, I am sure.

Terresa: I have read that and thought the same thing. interesting.

Paul: much like everything else - too much salt can spoil the broth, I guess. But, I get so excited about the cleverness of my salt that I just can't stop using it...argh!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I was thinking recently that quirks need to come organically out of the characterization and not be laid on characters so they have a quirk. What you describe sounds slathered on. But I'm not saying I know what I'm doing!

Dominique said...

I'm super guilty of that. Once I get a character tell into my head, it appears all the time. What's worse is that I know for the reader it gets old fast, but it just sort of happens anyway.

Susan Fields said...

Great reminder to be careful about this, Tess, it's an easy thing to get carried away with.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I've totally been distracted by tells when I'm reading a book. And, of course, guilty of writing them! Thank goodness for my critique group :)

Robyn Campbell said...

Tess, it seems to me that writers do that for the benefit of the readers. Why dress the characters foibles up too much? It makes it so hard to read. UGH.

That is one thing I do not do. YAY.

Oh, and I feel fat. All that food.

Jody Hedlund said...

Oh, for sure! I probably need to tone down a couple of my characters--put them on a diet! I think that anything that takes the reader out of the story has to go!

Suzyhayze said...

I think they need quirks.. and sometimes a constant character "thing"... (you read my work, you remember Quinn and his hand through hair thing) but you can surely overdo it! I have my pet peeves. I can't stand it when an author tells me the color of someones eyes over and over again. Tell it to my ONCE sistah! I promise I won't forget... and gosh darn it, must all eyes have FLECKS! (Those who read your blog who I crit are laughing out loud right now!)

Suzyhayze said...

OH! and my word verificatin was "Ching" as in CHA-CHING..... as in... news from an editor soon? For you, my friend? Crossing fingers. S

Scott said...

I have a family of characters that consistently arch their right eyebrows. I have a character who bites his lower lip. I have a character that drums his fingers on the table. I have a co-worker who yawns very loudly and dramatically . . . oh, wait, we're talking about characters and not real people . . . sorry.

I use these specific traits (i.e. tells) more often early in the novel, and less often as the novel progresses. I think that most readers, after a while, know the tells of a character and don't need to be told about the tells. : )

I think when an author uses tells way too often, it does become a bit overdone, just like your turkey!

S

Corey Schwartz said...

Love this post, Tess. I have seen it overdone in books. I think I notice it even more in movies. When it's well-done, a great character quirk can make a film so much more memorable and enjoyable. I did not especially like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I'll always remember the old guy who Windexed everything!

Tess said...

Tricia: you hit it exactly. I love a good tell, but moderation and not in every single character (imho)

Dominique: me too! I think that is why this is on my mind .. something I need to learn from.

Susan: how are you friend? I've read your writing and don't remember you having issue with this - no problem for you but still good to think of.

Solvang Sherrie: yes! critique groups are wonderful for catching these things in my writing -- sooo thankful!

Robyn: It certainly changes the tone of the book to comical when it is overdone. But, sometimes as a writer I feel so clever in my work that I can't see it.

Jody: that's it exactly, it keeps pulling me out of the story. Those are the words I should have used.

Suzy: of course I remember Quinn (hottie that he is)! Nothing overdone there :) And...cha-ching, eh? hmmmm....

Scott: I can always count on you for a giggle - thanks! And, you make a good point. Character tells can make our fiction more realistic. I love how you phase them out a bit as the novel progresses. That is great advice.

Susan R. Mills said...

I have read books with overdone character tells. I agree that they can be distracting. I'll have to watch for this when I do my next read through.

Danyelle said...

Definitely there can be too much information on some characters. I think I tend to be more sparse in my descriptions though. I hope. O:)

Linda Kage said...

Oh, I think everything can be overdone, especially character tells. I'm just thankful my crit partners help me catch things when I begin to go too far...because I'm usually oblivious to the overuse.

Janna Qualman said...

Definitely sounds overwhelming! I have many instances with this now, but know I'll fix it when I revise this first draft.

Like the way you think. ;)

Amy Allgeyer Cook said...

I LOVE using tells to slow down dialogue. Sometimes you need a beat before the reader goes to the next line. It gives the line before so much power...especially if the line is short, like "No." but the 'no' needs to be super powerful. Like, 'no, I don't want to marry you.' We need a moment for the reader to catch their breath and widen their eyes.

Too many tells, though, start to become more like blocking in a play. They don't add anything except direction for the actors. Neat post!!

Davin Malasarn said...

Tess, I think I kind of get what you are saying, but would you mind explaining what exactly you mean by "tell." Sorry if I'm being dense.

lotusgirl said...

I do this sometimes, but I work not to. It's easy to get carried away. When I put too many ticks and tells in I generally remove the excess when I go back through. It's nice to have beta readers to help see them though. Too many tells make the characters cartoonish and unless that's what you're going for, you gotta be careful.

Jackee said...

I just saw this in the revisions I'm working on just as I read this:

Squeezle scratched the gray stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “Bangor’s near twenty miles from here."

So obviously I believe it's overkill, but only in theory. Thank goodness for revisions to trim fat!

Amy Tate said...

LOL! I've never thought of characters as being fat. But you're right - there needs to be more dieting out there.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Great, great post, Tess! I agree: Too many character traits and descriptions can be distracting. They frustrate me when I'm reading and I definitely try to get rid of them in my writing. A few go a long way.

Anita said...

Wait...are you the same TESS who won the contest at MARKET MY WORDS?!

Tess said...

Corey: I never even thought about it in movies .. now I'll be looking.

SusanRMills: me too!

Danyelle: hello there...how are you? I need to pop over and see how the move went...

Linda: I'm amazed at how many things I am oblivious to...funny, but true.

Janna: thanks, I think it's on my mind because it is something I need to work on.

Amy: well said, friend. And, I wonder if action is the same as a tell. I mean, if you have a character do something once or twice at a given moment, that is different than this book where the villan licks his lips every single scene, with every single thought. Like you said, it's all about how it is done.

Davin: good question! a tell is something that the character does .. like a habit. Not a one time or two time action, but more like a tick or habit. Say you have a character who likes to run his fingers through his hair or another character who drinks Dr. Pepper. In moderation, it can help add dimension to the character -- but when it is done in excess OR if it is with every single character in the book (like the example I gave in the post), it gets a little comical and slap stick...in my opinion.

lotusgirl: exactly. and, I can get carried away w/ this as well. But, I've read your work and you don't really have a problem here.

Jackee: that is a great line, but if he scratches that stubble every time he goes to say something, then it gets a bit much. as you have it, though, it is lovely writing.

Amy: glad you got the joke ... tried to tie it into how I was feeling after an overload of pumplin pie!

Cynthia: I am getting frustrated with this novel I'm reading. Isn't that an interesting response?

Karen said...

Congrats on winning the giveaway at Market My Words!

Davin Malasarn said...

Thanks, Tess. I see. I'd guess the value of a tell could depend on the story. If you have an epic with a lot of characters (Iliad, Anna Karenina) it might make it a whole lot easier if many of the characters have a tell. You may need to exaggerate for each character to get the attention they need. With a smaller story, a tell will probably get old quick.

Lisa and Laura said...

One of our writing friends said it best, you want your characters to be quirky, not act like they have Turrets!

P.S.
We think you're all kinds of awesome. We think you rock and we're proud to be your writing friends!

storyqueen said...

Tess, I feel dumb that I've never heard of a character tell before...but you explained it well to Davin, so I totally get it now.

I think they bug me when I notice them...and they don't seem authentic.

Shelley

Tess said...

LiLa: hahahaha -- that line is a keeper :D

storyqueen: nah, it's all a process. I'm learning terms and stuff every single day - that's what makes this so much fun

Davin: well, yes - but if you give tells to every single character (especially in a big cast epic) it is over the top. Pick a character, sprinkle it in. That's my thought - but rules are broken in literature every day

Karen: THANKS!!!! SO, SO excited!

Sharon Mayhew said...

I read an adult thriller recently. It had way too many details on setting and the character's behaviors. I had to read it because I know the author, but the first third of the book was a struggle. Then it was like he found his voice and it was great.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Good post!

It's not just physical desciptions that get overused in this way, but accomplishments and tastes.

The English writer Mary Wesley was fond, in one of her books, of making a point about whether her characters could open oysters or not. The novel wasn't first person, so this wasn't a quirk of the narrator. Nor was it important to the plot or part of the subtext or metaphor. I'm sure she wasn't aware how many times she made this observation about a character. So several times during the course of the novel, an oyster opening situation would come up and we would be told whether the character made a mess of it or not.

Also I think several of the characters, completely independently, all liked their orange juice in exactly the same quirky way. Again, there seemed no reason for the repetition - except that the author forgot she had given a previous character that same preference!

Tess said...

Sharon: good for you for sticking to it and getting to the enjoyable part. too often, I run out of patience and set the book down.

dirtywhitecandy: okay, I can't stop laughing at your blogger name. it's wonderfully hilarious! welcome :D and, you make an excellent point here. it isn't just the ticks/habits of the characters. anything in excess pulls the reader out of the story and isnt' a good thing. Oh, and I love the orange juice example. how did the editor not catch that??

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I'm really trying to get better at character tells, especially with dialogue. That's definitely an area that I'm weak, but getting stronger.

Have a great day!

Kelly H-Y said...

I haven't heard the term 'character tell' before ... thanks for introducing me to it! What a great point you make ... it's so true, and it's great when we can learn from books we're reading, and make improvements in our own writing as a result!