How to be a nose for characters
Near my home, a world-class vineyard and winery nestles into a pastoral valley limned by blue mountains. “Yes, Virginia,” more than fifty award-winning vineyards make the central part of our state a destination for oenophiles. At Keswick Vineyards, there’s a popular annual competition in which wine club members are invited into the cellars. There, oenophile aka “nose” teams compete to create a blend labeled as Consensus.
The Right Blend
Different varieties of grapes make wines more complex and maximize the expression of a bottle, as do the right blend of characters in our stories. As a little Merlot can help soften Cabernet’s tannins or a touch of Syrah can give some oomph to watery inexpensive Pinot, giving characters distinguishing traits make scenes interesting and robust, worth savoring, and with just the right finish.
In his (completely brilliant) craft book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, agent Donald Maas says, “Character differentiation is the technique of making the characters in your cast different and distinct from one another . . . contrast is the key.”
Aim for contrast by focusing on personality, voice and worldview:
Like sweetness and acidity in wine, characters need each other for balance.
The good-guys need foils–black-hearted scoundrels–to highlight the good-guys’ white-knight personas. (While an antagonist acts in opposition to the MC, a foil simply provides a contrast.) Consider Cal and Aron in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a novel modeled after the Bible story of Adam and Eve and their sons Cain and Abel. Aron is pale and delicate, the beloved son, while the murderous Cain is dark and secretive. Not only do the boys’ personalities provide contrast and complexity to the story, they affect the choices they make throughout the novel.
A great wine speaks. Characters resonate with readers when they’re given accents, nicknames and quirk. A memorable scene in Susan Isaac’s novel RED, WHITE AND BLUE features a jumble of soldiers sharing a WWII foxhole. Issacs gives each man a different regional accent making the scene interesting, compelling, and yes, hilarious. (Though I grew up in Chattanooga, I still giggled at the guffawing bumpkin from Tennessee.)
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, Jay Gatsby nicknames Nick Carraway Old Sport, which implies that Nick desires an old-money lifestyle; he wants to play rich men’s games at the mansion estates of East Egg, Long Island. Old Sport. How catchy is that?
STAR WARS Yoda, the ancient Jedi Master, says his wise words using an object-subject-verb pattern. (Maybe that’s what everyone did 900 years ago.) Old style and direct it is. Quirky and exotic it is. And love the wrinkly little green badass we do.
Oenophiles use the term “earthy” to describe wines delivering a sense of place and origin, from where the grapes were grown, even to the type of soil.
Great characters have complex root systems. We empathize with them–even the rascals–because we know where they came from and how their experiences have shaped their worldviews for better or worse. Even if opposing characters have similar desires or goals, it’s the origin of what drives them that matters.
Contrasting worldviews make characters believable and relatable. Sharpen your shovel, and dig deep. Give your characters deeply buried secrets and internal struggles that will trigger the decisions that drive your plot.
Just as Keswick Vineyard’s Consensus competition affords noses an inside view of what makes great wines work, allowing readers to see what makes our characters tick as individuals, makes for richer, fuller, and more satisfying reading experiences.