Monday, September 20, 2010

The Perils of Familiarity

There are ups and downs to the writing process. Sometimes the words flow and other times they don't. Sometimes a brilliant ideas remains brilliant and other times, well, the brilliance fades and the idea gets placed in a folder to collect dust. Yes, it happens.

There are perils to writing as well. The peril I'm going to discuss today is the peril of familiarity.

What is this dreaded peril? Well, in simple terms, it happens when a writer becomes so familiar with their characters that, well, every character they create is pretty much the same.

There's one series of books, well, two series, same characters, very well written. I've read the series many, many, many times. The author had great success with this particular series, so-so success with another series, and then, many years later wrote a stand-alone, single volume book.

Well, enter the perils of familiarity. The characters in this book - perhaps intentional, perhaps not - were carbon copies of the characters, down to personality traits, of the oh-so familiar characters I knew and loved from the author's previous works. In fact, the only difference was the names. Yes, the characters were that familiar.

Now, on to a different author that I love. She makes me laugh out loud every time I read one of her books. Heck, one time, I had to quit reading because I was laughing so hard. I walked the dogs, still laughing btw, and couldn't pick up the book for almost twenty minutes because the one scene was so ingrained in my mind. Great writing.

So, anyhow, new book by this author, good concept and characters, loving the book, even though there is a sense of familiarity about one of the characters. There's enough difference, however, to make the sense vague . . . unlike my previous example. Then, wham, bam, this vaguely familiar character happens to drive the exact same vehicle as a character in another series by this same author. Screeeeeeeeeecccchhh! Apply the brakes. WTH??? Yes, pulled right out of this great story by the perils of familiarity.

I mean, couldn't this similar to another character have driven a different type of vehicle? Couldn't the explanation for where the vehicles came from have been a bit different than used in the other books by this author? Couldn't . . .

Yes, more than one similarity (i.e., familiarity).

So, all of this got me to thinking about my own writing and whether I too might suffer from the perils of familiarity.

Why, after careful inspection, yes I do . . . to a certain, but hopefully not jarring, extent. At some point, in most projects, the characters end up drinking margaritas. At some point, the individual characters might drink Jack Daniels and Coke, or Crown and Coke, or Scotch and Water, or . . . some other type drink that my real, not fictional (ha), friends drink.

This is okay.

The fact that all the characters in each different project drive the same vehicle, at least in my opinion, isn't okay.

The fact that every character I write is exactly the same except for a change in name, at least in my opinion, isn't okay.

Now, back to the book I just finished reading. Here's my hope: the author, in book II or III or whatever, will link the vehicles to the character in her other series. Yes, wham, bam, right out there for every one to see the author will insert a sentence that says "Yeah, we get the vehicles from this dude in Chicago who runs a . . . " This, dear readers, would be neat, and a great tie in to the other series, and make the perils of familiarity not so jarring.

How about you, do you suffer from the perils of familiarity? Is there a way for this not to happen? Is it okay that this happens? Thoughts, comments???



Misha said...

I try not to, but it's tricky, since I tend to like certain types of characters.

At the moment, all of my characters seem quite different from each other. I just hope I can keep them seperate. Otherwise they might just end up growing into the same person.

Domey Malasarn said...

I think it's okay that this happens. For me as a reader, I find it interesting to see what patterns repeat because I take it as a sign that those particular details are important to the writer. As a writer, though, I've tried my best to avoid it only because that's my personal preference.

Scott said...

Misha - I think similarities among are characters are okay. It's when the characters become indistinguishable from each other that, at least in my opinon, it's not okay.

Domey - For me, it's jarring. Now, granted, the author could love VW Beetles (nope, that's not the car in question) and insert them in every single book, even if none of the books are part of a series. I think the jarring thing for me, was knowing the author's previous series so well - just finished the most recent book a month or so ago - and then, almost literally, being run over (ha) by the same vehicle driving by Mr. Stud Muffin in the other series.

See also my above comment.

I think it's great to reference other books. For example, Guy Gavriel Kay's first series was the Fionaver Tapestry (excellent read, btw). In his later epic fantasies, he in some form or fashioned, mentioned the first world (Fionavar). It was a nice nod to his longtime readers. I've done the same thing in my projects, especially since the ones written over the last few years all take place in Nashville. I'll have characters in a current project meet up with a character in a past project. It's kind of fun.

I just hope - sorry for the long response - that my characters, while maybe sharing some traits, are different enough and stand out enough that my readers don't say "Well, gee, Joe in this book is really Tom in that book he wrote a few years ago". : )


Elana Johnson said...

Oh, yes. Sometimes I'll be reading and just think, "This isn't special." It feels familiar. The story might be different. The characters different. But it just doesn't feel special. It feels familiar.

It's a horrible place to be as a writer, and maybe one of the reasons I'm in a writing "break" right now. Nothing feels special.

Scott said...

Elana - been there, done that . . . and far too often. I think the long periods of non-writing are because things aren't feeling 'special'. I eliminated a character from one project because I realized I had two, pretty much identical characters. I only need one such character.

: )