Chinese Zodiac. Yup, that’s my new writing trick.
My characters felt like they were lacking in depth. I was having a hard time giving them interesting personalities. After all, there are a handful of major characters but a string of supporting characters. Yeah, they each had their own personality, but the minor characters felt very two-dimensional. One guy was turning into a caricature.
Then one day, a stroke of good luck made it all so much easier. My family ordered Chinese food from the little Mom and Pop restaurant up the street. We were sitting at the table and looking at the Chinese zodiac place mats. The next day I was telling everybody how my Mom, Dad, brother, and husband are ALL Tigers. It turns out that my son is a Snake and I am a Rat.
After NaNoWriMo I was feeling out of sorts so I went online to find out more about the Chinese zodiac. I was surprised. I mean, who knew? The Chinese zodiac has more than one “subtype” of each animal. Not only is there a “Year of the Rat”, etc., but there is a year for Water Rats, Fire Rats, Wood Rats, Metal Rats, and Earth Rats. Each animal is influenced by one of those five elements.
This gave me an idea. Since my novel has a wide variety of people in a wide variety of ages, why not fine-tune their personalities to meet the Chinese zodiac?
That’s exactly what I did, and I feel that each character is more rounded as a result. It was getting too easy to make black-and-white people and people who followed stereotypes. It was too easy to make some characters all-bad and some characters all-good.
How did I do it? For example, take Mister Character A. This guy was born in the 60s, he’s really intense, and he’s had several jobs. What sign fits him? I choose one of the many, many zodiac web sites and look over the various signs. I see that “wood snakes” are passionate, deep thinkers, and dream of better opportunities which always seem to evade them. Perfect! I’ll say Mister Character A was born in 1965 and I’ll use “wood snake stuff” to direct some of his actions.
As a result of following the zodiac descriptions, I was able to give each person in the novel some strengths and weaknesses I wouldn’t have thought about ordinarily. While I continue to write the novel, I will need to work with those strengths and weaknesses. It’s good mental exercise!
My good guys have flaws now … and my bad guys have some admirable traits. I have metal snakes and I have earth horses. I have fire rabbits and water dragons. I even have a wood rooster. I also have guidelines for which people in the novel might not get along with other people.
If you have a group of characters in your novel who are close to the same age, maybe you could model them on the typical “western” zodiac (Taurus, Cancer, Sagittarius, etc.). Signs in the “western” zodiac (or whatever the zodiac is called) can be influenced by secondary forces as well. For example, I’m a Sagittarius, but my “rising sign” is Pisces.
Of course … I don’t *really* believe any of this zodiac stuff! But .. it was a pretty useful tool in making characters more three-dimensional . It might feel like you are limiting yourself (and your characters) by sticking to the zodiac descriptions but I feel like it opened a lot of doors into new writing possibilities.
That’s today’s writing advice from your friendly neighborhood water rat.