Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.Bonus-01: Characterization and Differentiation, with Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb joined us at GenCon Indy for a discussion of characterization and differentiation. And by “discussion,” what we really mean is “we ask Robin all the questions.” We learn about Robin’s process for creating characters, wrapping stories around them, and making these characters distinctly different from each other.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Joel Burnham, and mastered by Alex Jackson, and was made possible by the generous support of the GenCon Indy Writer’s Symposium, and the Writing Excuses patrons at Patreon.

Homework: Pull some of your favorite books down, examine the dialog itself, without tags, and determine what tricks the writer has used to differentiate the character voices.

Thing of the week: Hex, by Thomas Olde Huevelt.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you make characters unique and interesting? How do you create characters? Some writers start with a plot or a what-if. Others start with a character. When a character steps out and starts talking, the world will form around them. Ask who are you? What formed you? What kind of family did you grow up with? What did your parents do for a living? Are you from urban, rural, or where? Wealthy, poor? Think about how a character’s backstory influences them. A lot of it is your character’s reactions to whatever is happening. When the story unfolds, trust yourself. Differentiating characters really means paying attention to the characters’ backgrounds. What vocabulary do they use, how do they see things? Attitude, sentence structure, slang, cadence, it all makes a difference. Then add in description. And reactions to other characters and events. Reaction shots reveal character!

[Howard] Season 11, Bonus Episode 1.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Characterization and Differentiation, With Robin Hobb.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] But Robin Hobb is. I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And with us today, Robin, thank you very much for being here.
[Robin] Well, thank you for having me.
[Dan] Awesome. Could you take a minute, just for like the one listener out there who doesn’t know who you are, and tell us a bit about yourself.
[Robin] I’m a fantasy novelist, probably best known for the Farseer trilogy, but there are now a number of books set in the world. I began my career also writing as Megan Lindholm. I still do short works under that name. And under that name, probably best known would be Wizard of the Pigeons, which was an urban fantasy.
[Dan] Cool. Awesome. Well, I am very excited to have you here. Actually, and in a very malicious way, I am excited to have you here when Brandon’s not. Because you’re one of his favorite authors.

[Dan] So, ha ha, Brandon. Take that. So we want to talk about characterization today and differentiation. We’ll explain what we mean by that second half later. So let me start with just the really kind of wide-angle question, when you sit down to write a character, how do you make that character unique and interesting?
[Robin] I think that for many, many writers, characterization, or character creation, starts in a part of their mind that they don’t have full conscious access to. Some writers start with a plot, or a what-if, and other writers start with a character that is going to be challenged in some way. I am very much a writer who starts first with a character. For me, that character steps out into the spotlight on the stage and announces themselves. As I talk to the character, or the character monologues, the camera pulls back and the world falls into place around him… Or her. The questions that you ask that character are who are you? What formed you at the most basic level? What sort of a family did you grow up in? What did your father and your mother do for a living? Are you in a small town? Are you in a large city? Are you wealthy? Are you poor? All of these details that fill in around the character build the world at the same time. Because the character has to be shaped by the world. I’ve had people who have told me, “Oh, you know what, my friend wrote me into a story.” For me, that absolutely would not work. For me, the character has to be generated by the world. I don’t think I could take a 21st century any person and believably insert them into a fantasy.
[Dan] Okay. So. I think that’s awesome. But it seems partly contradictory to me. So I want… I wanna… I wanna ask this and throw this back at you you say that the character appears first and that the world fills in around them. But then also that the character is formed by the world. So how do those to justify together?
[Robin] Well, I think if you think about the people you know and you say, “Why is Charlotte this way? Why is she so pennypinching?”
[Dan] I’ve always wondered that about Charlotte.
[Robin] And you think, “Okay. Well, Charlotte grew up in a family with a very tight budget. So she always had to make choices. So this has affected her personality, not only in what she buys, but it who she chooses as friends. All choices are very important and very dire for her.” Then you take Mark, who spends money hand over fist. You look at him, and it’s actually not because he grew up wealthy, but because now he suddenly has money. He can do all the things he wanted to do with it. So when you generate that character, you have to look at them and say, “Believably, what is this character’s past and environment?”
[Dan] The two are kind of informing each other as you build them.
[Robin] Exactly. Exactly.
[Howard] This morning, I was sitting at breakfast next to a group of guys… We’re at GenCon. Yay, GenCon.
[Howard] Fantastic. All right. Sorry about that, Alex.
[Howard] Alex is our post-processing engineer who had to make that not break your headphones. I was at breakfast, and these four guys were talking about the games that they had been playing. I’m listening to them talk, because it’s fascinating. They’re obviously very informed as they’re talking about these games in very technical terms. I’m peering over the table to look at their badges to see if they’re wearing exhibitor badges. They’re not. They’ve got four-day passes. I think, “Whoo. That’s a lot of expertise for somebody who’s just a fan.” So I asked. “Are you guys here demoing games? Are you here to play? What brought you to GenCon?” They said, “Nope. We are just… Just!… Boardgame fans. Hard-core boardgame fans.” That piece of information totally rebuilt my story of these people. At first, I thought, “Oh, these are game designers. These are experts. These are people who are industry savvy.” No, these are people with racks and racks and racks of boardgames at home, who play them until they are dead. That is two completely different stories, informed by one piece of information. The question I have for you… You said they step onto the stage and they begin their monologue. Is this something that you write in character generation? Do you start with the character voice as if you are asking them questions and they are talking to you? How do you… What’s your process?

[Robin] I write… a tremendous amount of my work is first person, because I think it’s the natural storytelling voice. When you come home at the end of the day, and your kid runs up to you and says, “What did you do today?” Or your kid comes home and you say, “How was school?” It’s all “Well, I went to school and this happened to be and that happened to ma and this is how I saw it.” So to me, first person is the natural storytelling voice. So when I sit down with my character and I begin typing, and the character is speaking in first person to me, things are unraveling, although the world is being built entirely from that person’s point of view. Just like I have a single camera and I’m walking through GenCon, and the camera never stops, and I’m experiencing it completely from that single point of view. Where I go and what I talk about and how I experience it, is really building the character as you go along. The choice I make if I go up the stairs or if I wait for the escalator or if I go left or if I go write, all of those little choices are adding up. The bits and pieces of the character.
[Howard] Okay. But is that… Are you like discovery writing the beginning of the story, or is this a pre-writing exercise to develop the character?
[Robin] I’m too lazy to pre-write.
[Robin] I jump right in and the story just starts. I’m rolling…
[Howard] Look, I’m a cartoonist. I know from lazy.
[Robin] Okay.
[Robin] So I’ve been walking around with a first line in my head, which is “‘ I told you so,’ said the ghost.” That is my first line. Now I have my character’s reaction to this. It just starts unfolding from there. Who is the ghost? Who is the character who’s talking back? What is it I told you so about? The story unfolds. So I think that for a lot of writers, a certain amount of it does happen in some back room in your brain that… It’s a do-not-enter door, and then sometimes things come out of it.
[Dan] Awesome.

[Robin] That’s not helpful to a new writer, unless I say also, “Trust yourself.” So many new writers will say, “Well, they say write what you know, and I don’t know anything yet, so I’m going to have to go and climb a mountain before I can write about that.” The answer to that is that if you are 15 years old in the year 2016, you know more about being 15 years old in the year 2016 than any amount of research will ever teach me. You know more about how your life is being affected by this really peculiar election season that we’re going through. You know many, many things that I… That research will not teach me, no matter how thoroughly I research. So that’s what they mean when they say write what you know. Write from your bones out. It doesn’t mean that you have to write about being in a public school in Indianapolis and you’re 15 years old. But it does mean take that 15-year-old viewpoint and set it into whatever fantasy world you want. Start writing from that viewpoint. You’ll do just fine.

[Dan] Cool. Awesome. All right. So we want to pause here for our book of the week I. You’re going to pitch one that I actually also love. So please tell us about Hex.
[Robin] Hex is written by a Dutch author whose name I’m about to slaughter, Thomas Olde Huevelt. I’m pronouncing it like you would see it spelled out. Bookstores are probably putting it under H, even though it should be filed under O. So you might have to look in two sections. This is his first book that has been translated from Dutch into English, and published widely in the US. But previous to this, he has won… Oh, a couple of awards.
[Dan] He’s a rock star in… Over…
[Robin] Yes. I met him years ago at Elf Fantasy Fair in the Netherlands where he had a stall set up. He had just produced the very first video book trailer that I had ever seen. I was fascinated that somebody was using a video trailer to promote a book, and we got into a long conversation about that and what he had done. Hex is a wonderful story. In the Dutch version, I believe it’s set in the Netherlands. In the English version, he has set it in the US. He went to a lot of trouble to make the changes believable. But basically, without doing too many spoilers, I will say, if you have a very dark and fearsome witch that keeps manifesting in your town, and you can’t… If you move away from the town, you become seized with anxiety and you have to come back, how does small town politics deal with that? How do you adapt so that your tourist industry is not ruined? There are bullets in this book which are horribly fearsome, and other moments which are equally hilarious. So that’s the one I recommend.
[Dan] Awesome. Thank you very much. That is Hex, by Thomas Olde Huevelt. You can get it pretty much anywhere, because it’s awesome.
[Robin] Exactly. It’s been selling very well. It’s a good story.

[Dan] Okay. So. Now, let’s get to the second half of our topic, which is character differentiation. What do we mean by that? You write books that have many different characters in them. How, after we’ve made our one character unique and interesting, how do we make sure that the next character is different? Is unique and interesting in a totally different way?
[Robin] Well, again, it’s knowing the character’s background. If you have one character who is a farmer and another character who comes from a sailing ship background, the choice of vocabulary that they are going to use for things is going to be very different. I’m married to a sailor. In our house, we have a galley, we have a head, we have a deck. I happen to have like a kitchen and a bathroom and a floor.
[Robin] But it’s all in the same house. It’s very interesting that way. So with your characters, it’s a choice of vocabulary, it’s a way of seeing things. If you want to do a double check, read your dialogue. Can you tell by reading, not just a single line like a three word dialogue, but if there is a piece of dialogue and you read it, you should be able to tell who is talking without all the little clues like Joe said and Samantha replied. If you can’t tell who’s speaking, then maybe you need to do some tweaking on it.
[Howard] In cartooning, the analog to that is what we call silhouette check. If you remove all of the interior lines and just block the characters out as shadows, if you can’t tell Charlie Brown from Lucy from Linus from Snoopy… Well, you can. Because Charles Schultz built those characters correctly. So for me, I call that the silhouette test. If I strip them down, just to a small bit of dialogue and can’t tell them apart, I have a problem.
[Robin] There was a wonderful… I read my comics every morning in my paper, Pearls before Swine, in which he broke down his characters, taking various parts off until the silhouettes were all the same. It was very funny. Very well done.

[Dan] So what are some of the tricks or tools that people can use in their dialogue to make sure everyone sounds different? To add an extra layer of difficulty here, rather than comparing the farmer and the sailor, what if we have two farmers? How can we make sure that they don’t talk the same way?
[Robin] If you have two farmers, a lot of it’s going to be based on attitude. Even the choice of sentence structure. If you think about it… I’m going to take The Lord of the Rings and think about how all the different characters in The Lord of the Rings, you can pretty much tell… If I could quote off the top of my head, you would be able to tell which character had said that. Some characters speak in longer sentences, some speak in shorter sentences. The use of slang. There’s just a lot of ways to build that in.
[Dan] Lord of the Rings is a great one to bring up. Even just looking at the hobbits. Sam and Frodo grew up in the same town, right next to each other, and they sound different.
[Robin] They sound very different.
[Dan] Sam is much more rustic, he’s much more subservient in the way that he talks. Frodo is a little more educated. That does come across in the way that they talk, and the cadence of their sentences.
[Robin] That’s exactly it, and just those verbal clues to your reader. Then, of course, we can do a lot more than just dialogue when we’re differentiating characters. There are going to be characters who are moody and they… He gestured wildly when they’re speaking, and they have shorter tempers, and there are characters who are calm and don’t move around as much when they’re speaking. All these little clues that you are putting in the description. If you’re writing from the first person, if you are an assassin and you walk into the room and there’s three people there, what he notices is going to be very different from the child character who runs in the room and is totally fixed on finding the toy they left there earlier and the big people standing around talking don’t matter at all. So it’s in everything you do, you put on that character like you’d put on a coat and you wear it. Everything is from that character’s point of view and their value system. If you’re writing a villain, when you put on that coat, no matter how you feel about it personally, you had better share all of her opinions and all of her justifications and everything she feels about it. If she is paranoid, or if she is righteously outraged about an old wrong, even if she’s not your protagonist, even if she’s the antagonist, from the time you put on her coat and you are wearing it, you have to be 100% on her side. Everything should be written from that viewpoint.
[Dan] Yeah. Definitely. I like what you said about attitude as well, a character attitude, because I think sometimes we just think of that first kind of occupational level. The assassin walked into the room. Well, she’s going to be wondering how easy will it be to kill that person or which one do I have to kill first? But just attitude stuff. Is this assassin impetuous? Well, maybe not, if they’re a successful one. Is this person tend to be angry, is this person… What are their emotions and how is that going to change? Are they very rushed when they do something? Do they take their time? Those more emotional cues are also going to change a lot of the way that they talk and interact.
[Robin] Oh, yes. Absolutely. And how they interact with the other characters. How a character treats a secondary character, a minor character… You take the… We’re in an inn, and the serving boy is late coming, and how the person reacts to that is a great way to build character. Whether that’s even noticed or whether you’re annoyed because somebody else is yelling at the serving boy or whether you’re embarrassed or whether you quietly tip the kid. All of that, all of the secondary, the reaction shots of this happens, how did my character react?
[Dan] The book that I just finished reading is Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys. It’s brilliant. She has four main characters, and each chapter has their name as the heading. There are some times… In fact, one case where they literally just get one sentence each per chapter because something big has happened and she gives a reaction shot of each one. This is how Florian sees it. This is how Joana sees it. It’s really great to watch those different characters react so differently. I would love to just talk to you for the rest of the evening, because this has been wonderful. But I’m afraid we do need to end our episode.

[Dan] Do you have a writing exercise you can give to our listeners?
[Robin]’s Well, I think one of the things that’s kind of fun to do is to pull some of your favorite books down from the shelf and look at the dialogue. Purposely kind of train your eyes so you’re not looking at the he said, she said. Or, if you can find a long section where it’s simply this person, that person, this person, that person, can you tell in the middle of the book who’s speaking? What were the tricks that were used to do that? Or…
[Howard] Why isn’t it working?
[Robin] Pull out a section of your old dialogue and look at it and say, “If I ran this all together in one paragraph, with the reader really be able to tell that somebody else was speaking the second part of it?” Just try it out. Talk out loud. There are some things that are written in dialogue and they just… When you try to actually say them, they don’t work. There are some books that I really loved when I was a kid, and then I went to read them out loud to my own children and I suddenly realized that the dialogue was just terrible. The story was great, but I could not make it sound like something somebody would believably say to someone else. So it’s try it out loud…
[Dan] That was my book she was reading…
[Dan] By the way.
[Howard] She really enjoyed I Am Not a Serial Killer as a child.
[Dan] She read it to her children at night.
[Robin] I read it to my children at night.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, Robin, thank you so much for being here. This has been wonderful. Thank you to our audience. And to everyone out listening, you are out of excuses. Now go write.