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Edit: After reading the question I've asked again and the answers I've gotten, I feel I should say that the descriptions of the characters here are definitely the bare basic. There is a full word doc with everyone's personal information and such on it. It isn't that well explained though. I also don't know how links work on this website...

To begin with, I've never asked a question on here before. So please don't be too harsh if something doesn't look right, I'm trying my best!

I currently am writing a book, Happy Apocalypse, and I feel the cast of MCs could be a little bland. Any advice about whether they should be changed or not is appreciated, as this is my first book.

A bit of information on them and the book as a whole:

• It's set a few weeks post zombie apocalypse.

• Follows a main group of 4 MCs.

• The genre is likely more of a adventure/comedy, as it's definitely got a few physics/logic breaking moments.

• The main 4 are Podia, a Japanese-English 17 YO; Jackson, a transgender Scottish 18 YO; Stacy, a 19 YO black Brazilian and Felix, 18 YO Russian-Canadian.

(Added starts here)

• The main setting is Cornwall, but in a 'twisted version' where there is the main city of England rather than London. All four teens were around town when the cause of the zombie apocalypse broke out (didn't state the reason because of spoilers), with Jack and Felix being together and Podia and Stacy being sort of nearby. There is a collection of shorts called "Before Chaos" which explains where they all were beforehand, why they were there, the mental state of each at the beginning of the story, etc.

• Podia. Her father is Japanese whilst her mother is English. She can speak both languages fluently but struggles with written English. She's essentially the 'Main MC', if that makes sense. She's the first character I made for this and the others were added to keep things interesting. She knew none of the others before the story.

• Jackson. The poor lad had a troubled childhood and eventually moved to the UK, the main setting of the story, which is where he met Felix and followed him like a lost puppy. He's pretty artsy and has a 'detective' mindset. He knew Felix and had heard of Podia before the story.

• Stacy. She was born in Brazil but she grew up in the UK. She's got a "wicked death-glare!" (Quote from Jackson) and tends to speak her mind without caring about others opinions. She had to take anger management as a kid because her 'free speaking' got her into a lot of fights, mainly with Felix. She doesn't abbreviate words when she speaks. She knew Felix before everything and had heard of Podia and Jackson.

• Felix. Felix was born in Canada with one Russian parent whom he tries to forget. They essentially forced him into learning Russian (which isn't important to the story but it's fun to add details). He "swears like a sailor" (Also from Jackson), and tends to pick on/bully those he deems weaker than him. He knew Jackson and Stacy (as well as knew about Podia) before the story.

(End added info)

There is more information on the group, but the document contains some spoilers for late in the book. I wanted to ask this now before I get too far into the story to change it!

Thank you to all answers in advance! ~ Elil ^^

  • What is the setting of this commuity. Its a bit of a grab bag. Not impossible, but my first reaction was "where in the world can this group meet"? I think that would pull me out of the story more than any other logic breaking moments. Cozy apocalypse stories tend to focus on more homogynous communities (as they tend to be isolated... especially in Zombie Apocalypses). – hszmv Jan 10 at 18:30
  • I've added some more info on everything! (I thought the post would be too long so I refrained from it when first writing the question!( – Elil Flame Jan 10 at 19:38
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    As an English/Japanese speaking father of two Japanese-American girls who are reading everything they see, your 17 yo that can speak Japanese / English but can't read the latter doesn't really make any sense, especially given that she'd be living in an English speaking (and writing) country. If you want to give your characters this kind of language disadvantage, you should look into linguistic studies of the languages in question. If you really want her to not be able to read English, take away the ability to speak it fluently. – n_b Jan 11 at 1:57
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    Welcome to Writing SE and Stack Exchange. Links are simple: [some text](some URL) or just paste the URL as-is. See How do I format my posts using Markdown or HTML? in the Help center. I'd also encourage you to take the quick site Tour, if you haven't already. – a CVn Jan 11 at 14:37
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    "Stacy" is an extremely unlikely name for a Brazillian gal, but not impossible. I don't know what nationality her parents are, but for some added "kick" you could go with a more classical brazillian name. You have a very large pool of names that sound very exotic for anyone that isn't brazillian to choose from. – T. Sar Jan 11 at 14:52
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We don't have enough information to determine if they are "too bland".

I will answer generally. I think you are paying too much attention to physical identity and color, neither of which are generally important.

What is important for a story is conflict, your characters (even if they are working together) need to be in some sort of conflict, with each other, with the environment, with the antagonists, with their own feelings.

This requires them to each have their own lives, their own ideas, and generally to stand up for them. So they can have arguments, or disagreements, or differences in romance (who wants it, who doesn't) or leadership or dominance (who wants to lead, who doesn't want to follow), and so on.

Never let up, even with friends look for ways that they can disagree, negotiate, come to decisions and then do it again.

Readers should be involved with every page, they turn the page because they want to see what happens next (in the next few pages). So you need something that can pull them forward in the very short term (I need to read just two more pages), the medium term (I need to finish this chapter) and the long term (I need to see how this ends!).

Response to OP edits.

You are still listing characteristics of characters! Speaking as a writing coach, I don't care about any of these characteristics, they don't matter. You are focused on the wrong thing and putting the cart before the horse.

The only purpose of a characteristic in a character is to create some sort of conflict, or make a conflict worse, or to resolve some sort of conflict. They don't just exist to make a character "interesting". An "interesting" character can hold the stage for a few minutes, but if they don't have a problem to deal with, they are quickly boring.

You are missing the most important characteristics on each of these characters: Where are the flaws? What are they bad at? What will cause problems for them, and for others? On the flip side, what are they good at? What is going to save their butt when it needs saving? I give all my characters both kinds of characteristics, equally; for every thing they are good at, there is an offsetting something they are bad at, and I try to make it something important they are bad at, meaning I can see a way for this incompetence to get them into serious trouble.

I know you are aiming for comedy; but I suggest you review some comedies and look for the conflicts the MCs are having. They have serious problems, not just with their situation but with each other and how the situation is progressing.

The first thing you need for this story is a "crucible". That is some story device that forces the MCs to stay together (or keep engaging each other). This can be literal force (like being hand-cuffed together) or logical. Maybe it is too dangerous to go it alone. The crucible is a reason the MC's cannot just walk away when they have disagreements about what to do, who's in charge and so on.

The second thing you need is a problem they need to solve together. THEN you can start assigning personal and personality characteristics that get in the way of solving this problem together. Those are characteristics that matter to the plot.

Now, stories present those in reverse; which is what confuses many beginning writers. The design is problem+crucible, then characters and characteristics that will cause conflict.

But we present characters and characteristics, then the problem (zombie apocalypse), and then the crucible (they meet, solve a few easy problems, and realize they can't survive without each other). So then the conflicts ensue because you have designed the characters in advance to create problems for each other. This is entertaining because it is reflective of life: Nobody is perfect themselves or as companions, friends or lovers; there is always something to deal with.

  • I've now added more info to the post! (I hope this doesn't invalidate your answer as I have aimed not to do that! ^^') – Elil Flame Jan 10 at 19:39
  • Typos. If you don't understand "What are they bad at?", it means what are their weaknesses? Are they callous? Impulsive? Inexperienced? Do they fail to think things out, or jump to conclusions? Do they miss obvious clues? Are they self-absorbed? Are they overly jealous? Are they overly fearful, or cowards? What is NOT GREAT about their personality? I will note, often these are points that can be improved for a character to make them a better person. But in order to make a character a better person, you must start them out as a flawed person. Which make a more realistic character anyway. – Amadeus Jan 11 at 15:11
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You're looking at "uniqueness" the wrong way, I think. Look, for example, at The Lord of the Rings: Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are all hobbits. They come from the same place, they share the same kind of views, they're all heterosexual white men, three of them are the same social class. This doesn't prevent each of them from having his unique personality, his unique voice.

If a character were to say

Begging your pardon, he's no right to talk to you so

You'd recognise the speaker as Sam. No other character in the LotR would use that turn of phrase.

If someone

felt curiously attracted by the well

and

crept to the edge and peered over

You'd know those actions to be those of Pippin. Unrestrained curiosity and impulsiveness are his traits.

What makes a character unique is not their skin colour and sexual orientation, but their personality, their quirks, the way they speak, the kind of things you can expect them to do.

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    I think this is an extremely valid point that often gets lost in the drive for inclusiveness and representation. A person's sexuality, race, heritage is just a facet. If you're including those details just to say you are supporting diversity, you are no better than those including the "token black guy". Make the character memorable, don't make them "Bland Asian-European LGBTQI #3547). – Thomo Jan 11 at 1:32
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So this is more something you'll need to change or explain, but a fluent Japanese/English bilingual speaker is not going to have much trouble with the Roman Alphabet as you will with the Japanese Writing System... which suffice to say is very complex. English has 26 symbols... In Japanese, by the end of your high school career, you're expected to know 2,000 symbols and all their associated sounds... by the time you're a PhD, you should know somewhere around 10,000 different symbols.

This is to say nothing about the fact that in Japan, English is almost a second language in it's level of usage. Most tourist attractions have English signage and some stores and restaurants will have English words up because it looks cool. The one issue might be in turning English Words into Japanese and back into English (Japanese has fewer sounds than English, so certain letters in English get some confusion when they return back, famously the L and R sounds and the B and V sounds). Suffice to say, if she's able to understand English, you'll likely find her language barrier not in literacy but in accent (Fluent English in Japanese fiction sounds "too perfect" and "too foreign" to a Japanese ear. They prefer English in a Japanese Accent). The one time this is a broken rule is the Trains in Japan, which English is the second language and is spoken perfectly (possible in other tourist high areas). From a personal experience, I did have one Japanese man approach me while I was looking at a map and ask if I needed help in perfect English (I looked lost, I guess, and I explained that I was looking at the map to find nearby points of interest.)

In addition to that, Modern Japan has very close relations with the United States and was rather quick to fall in love with American Culture during the occupation (to the point that the Military Governor of Japan, General MacArthur, is occasionally referred to as Shogun MacArthur or The Last Shogun, based on his relationship with the Emperor. They also have a replica Liberty Bell (in a park by the Imperial Palace no less) and a Replica Statue of Liberty on Odiba near the shore in Tokyo Harbor (Across the street from the Fuji Tv Station building)). Americans also are the most common foreign resident in Japan followed closely be British foreign residents. They're fairly familiar with the language. If she did learn English in Japan, and speaks it like a native speaker, another way to make her sound unusual in from such an upbringing is have her talk like an American, as it's the more common dialect of English in Japan and probably how she would have learned it.

One final quirk is that while she'd make a lousy speaker, she would probably be able to read Chinese enough to understand what was going on. The two languages are nearly identical when written down, with most of the drift being recent and on the Chinese side (to distance themselves from this... Japan, Korea, and China all do not get along well together... mostly from WWII, but the dislike predates that war). They do sound nothing a like. The modern Japanese language takes loan words from all over the place.

Edit:

Oh, one thing I forgot that is just a quirk of the two languages and accents: In Japanese media, Americans tend to speak Japanese with an Kansai Accent (Kansai being the region that Kyoto and Osaka are in). This is typically do to the stereotypes of both Americans and Osakans tend to line up: Brash, Outspoken, yet Overly Friendly Idiots, compared to the Fomral Japanese that most Japanese media consumers (that is Tokyo speakers) are used to. It's almost a foreign personality so most foreigners generally speak in this accent... given that Japan is one of the most polite countries in the world, it's kind of hard for foreigners to not be brash and outspoken. In Real life, most Americans (in addition to most Foreign Speakers in general) speak with a Tokyo accent. Osakan Accent gets this stereotype because Osaka is the comedy capital of Japan, and the accent is fairly typical of the Funny man in a Funny Man/Straight Man routine... The Costello to the Tokyo Accent's Abbott. Prior to the development of this stereotype, it was the Villain Accent. In an English Translation, this tends to get changed to either a Brooklyn or Southern American accent and more rarely a Scottish, Northern, or Cockney accent for an Osakan Accented Brit with nary a loss in translating the stereotypes.

  • Quibble on the ease of reading Chinese: ancient Japanese and Chinese are quite similar in written form, but there's been a lot of drift on the Japanese side dating back at least to the 11th century. Unless she's been studying religious texts or ancient prose or similar, I'd expect a Japanese speaker to be able to only get the rough gist of written Chinese (especially using traditional characters), such as "this is talking about beef noodles, and I think it's praising them"; but the two written languages are quite far from "nearly identical", and would have been that way for centuries. – Ethan Kaminski Jan 11 at 19:48
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It actually takes very little to make a character unique

It's not in the clothes, but it might be the clothes. It's not in the color or gender, but it might be the color or gender. But what do I even mean?

Uniqueness is contextual

Is a character the only guy in a crowd of C-suite folks who's wearing jeans? Or maybe the only research scientist who wears a suit to work? Or even the token [insert minority group]? He's unique! (Or she.)

I don't think that's a good answer, though.

It's all about the reasons for being different - and that is depth

The real question is not how a character is superficially different, but why, and what the implications are. That one executive wearing jeans... Why hasn't he been fired (or pressured into dressing differently)? Does he expect to be fired, and he's passive-aggressively rebelling? If he's expecting to be fired, is it corporate intrigue by someone else or something he did wrong? Or is he a genius who can do whatever he wants, because he's that valuable and he knows it? Or is he a genius, but so oblivious that he doesn't realize he's supposed to dress differently - and nobody quite dares to tell him? Why are they afraid to tell him - is it him being temperamental, or the others being afraid they'll annoy him and he'll leave the company (but he wouldn't, really)?

Any number of very different characters could arise from the starting point of "that one guy who wears jeans".

Notice, though, it's still contextual. It's not just that your unusual executive is different, but what his relationship with the others is. It's easy to throw in minority status, or flamboyant wardrobes, or whatever, as a decorative skin on top of a shallow character who isn't really connected to their environment. Even in a book like Pride and Prejudice, what made Elizabeth Bennett memorable was contextual. If every character in the book was a fiercely independent and proudly intellectual woman, Eliza would have seemed bland. In fact, her gentle, kindly oldest sister seems just as unique as her rebellious and selfish youngest sister, because all of them are fleshed-out in relation to their relationships with each other.

Texture is in how characters are different from each other. Not just cosmetically, but REALLY different. And this comes from each character's "why's". And that is how you make your characters feel unique.

  • I've now added more info to the post! (I hope this doesn't invalidate your answer as I have aimed not to do that! ^^') – Elil Flame Jan 10 at 19:40
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You've definitely created a diverse group but I don't think that's what you meant by unique. I can't tell either way from the descriptions you've given, but the characters need to have more to their personality, skills, and flaws than just their race and sexuality. If Podia is just the a regurgitation of what you read on a Japanese-English culture Facebook page, they won't seem unique from any other Japanese-English teenager. While culture can play a moderate to large parts of one's childhood, their are several other factors and influences that make people unique. Lastly, make sure your characters have conflict and evolve as a result over the course of the story; while a character's temperament at any given point in the story shows how unique they are or are not, the way they change in response to conflict does so just as well and keeps characters from ever feeling stale. For example, I live in Canada and know a few Russians and they tend to be more conservative. Without making him a malicious prejudiced jerk, Felix could lack the understanding of Jackson's sexuality, causing them to but heads at the beginning of the story, but allowing you to develop them to understand and respect each other as the story comes to a close.

  • I've now added more info to the post! (I hope this doesn't invalidate your answer as I have aimed not to do that! ^^') – Elil Flame Jan 10 at 19:40
  • @ElilFlame It's a good to see that the characters have their own interests, fears, and quirks, but to reiterate: the best way to keep characters from feeling bland is to have them change over the course of the story in the face of conflict. No static character is so unique and rambunctious that readers are willing to read about them for the entirety of a story without the promise of something new. – Robotex Jan 10 at 21:50
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It's difficult to answer this definitively since there's information you've been unable to share thus far.

So for more of a general "how to approach answering this for yourself" answer - I tend to apply a rule of thumb that properly interesting characters for a story are ones that you should be able to describe in no more than a couple of paragraphs discussing them as a person and stating the premise of their place in the story without plot spoilers. If you can read that back (or better yet have someone of your story's intended demographic do it) and think "that sounds like something I'd be interested in seeing that character in that situation play out" then you're doing okay!

For some examples from existing characters/stories:

Agent Dana Scully is a no-nonsense FBI agent with a background in science and medicine and a rising star in the Bureau. Assigned to partner the unconventional and conspiracy-theorist Agent Mulder she is tasked with debunking his theories and investigations into cases that have a decidedly paranormal-seeming look.

As per Amadeus' (excellent) answer this immediately sets up the "crucible" for Scully (she's been ordered to work alongside Mulder), obvious routes for "conflict" (putting a skeptic and a "believer" together in a situation with ambiguous paranormal aspects - you know they are going to argue)

Shaun is an exceptionally ordinary underachiever. Unsuccessful in his career - he can't even get the shop workers at his job to listen to him, his relationships - his long suffering girlfriend has just dumped him, and dysfunctional with his family - he still can't accept his new step dad. He's unable to navigate the basics of everyday life and unable to think beyond his routine of video games with his housemate and going to his local pub. Shaun is not exactly Mr Maximum Effort - but he must step up when a zombie apocalypse strikes and everyone he loves is endangered.

So here you've got someone who on the face of it is not that interesting. They aren't successful, they have no notable skills or abilities, they are an every-man. However you put that every-man into a decidedly unusual circumstance that they can't walk away from (you can't just elect not to take part in a zombie apocalypse!) and you've got your crucible. You've got plenty of conflict lined up - an ex-girlfriend, a resented step-parent and Shaun vs. his own tendency to give up.

Let's try the same thing with your characters..

Podia. Her father is Japanese whilst her mother is English. She can speak both languages fluently but struggles with written English. A zombie apocalypse begins while she is in town.

Well, you've got a crucible(ish) - as in my above Shaun of the Dead example she can't just opt-out of that. But what is it about Podia that makes it particularly interesting to see her go through this experience? How does her mixed heritage relate? With the information we have that's little more than an aesthetic choice, you can see there's perhaps a slight challenge for her to overcome in the event that it becomes important to read or write some English I suppose, but it would be awfully contrived to sustain a whole story on that. For putative MC there's not a lot to work with there, Podia seems by far the least interesting of the bunch.

Stacy. She was born in Brazil but she grew up in the UK. She's got a "wicked death-glare!" (Quote from Jackson) and tends to speak her mind without caring about others opinions. She had to take anger management as a kid because her 'free speaking' got her into a lot of fights, mainly with Felix. She doesn't abbreviate words when she speaks. She knew Felix before everything and had heard of Podia and Jackson.

Ok, this gives us a bit more to go on. She's prone to speaking her mind, even when it might get her into trouble (some good potential for conflict there), and her pre-existing history with another of the characters gives her not only a reason to be with the group but also some more potential for conflict. Doesn't abbreviate when she talks? Marks her as unusual, gives options for conflict as it might irritate other characters - allowing stress to be projected/transferred onto something, careful though as it may end up being irritating to the reader. Brazilian? Since she grew up in the UK that's purely an aesthetic choice and has zero bearing on how she might navigate the story vs someone who was born in Basingstoke.

Felix. Felix was born in Canada with one Russian parent whom he tries to forget. They essentially forced him into learning Russian (which isn't important to the story but it's fun to add details). He "swears like a sailor" (Also from Jackson), and tends to pick on/bully those he deems weaker than him. He knew Jackson and Stacy (as well as knew about Podia) before the story.

The Russian background and language is a fun little fleshing out of the details - although unless you plan on using it as a Chekov's Skill it's not a detail that means overly much. He swears a lot - a good way of giving him his own "voice" and differentiating him a bit in the group. You can also use it to show reactions to exceptional circumstances - by having something shock/surprise him so much that he doesn't swear! (Robert Jordan used something similar with one his minor Wheel of Time characters - but it's worth noting that the character gets very, very hard work to read at points because the cursing is taken so far that for them to deliver about 3 words of plot advancing info takes 15 or 20 words!). Tendency to bully has some potential for conflict and growth - does he try and take charge? do the extreme circumstances force him to reassess his preconceptions of people he had previously labelled as "weak" in a new light? There's some questions I'd be interested in seeing play out during the story.

Jackson. The poor lad had a troubled childhood and eventually moved to the UK, the main setting of the story, which is where he met Felix and followed him like a lost puppy. He's pretty artsy and has a 'detective' mindset. He knew Felix and had heard of Podia before the story.

The second weakest after Podia IMHO - "troubled childhood" - YAWN. Him and every other cliched teen character ever. Loyalty to Felix is interesting though - it can set him up for a part in group dynamics in conflicts that Felix may ignite. Pretty artsy? No bearing on the situation, I can't say I've ever wondered how an artsy-type would fare in a zombie apocalypse. "Detective" mindset sets up some minor potential for conflict - such as having his deductions go contrary to Felix's more bullish opinions.

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My immediate question is, who are they? You have four resourceful young people from various ethnic groups.

Is Jackson afraid of something? Now that the zombies have been dealt with, what does he want? Will you as the author allow him to reach his goals?

Comedy can permit more shallow characters than drama requires, but you want to keep the readers interested in the people, making them step off the page and come to life, with all of their foibles.

Do your characters truly believe it is all over, or are they starting at shadows? Might they presume all strangers to be infected and treat them with suspicion or violence?

Does the Russian genealogy of the one have an effect on him?

Meet your characters, get to know them well. Learn everything you need to know - and things you don’t. Even aspects that will never appear in the novel, knowing them will colour how you write certain scenes.

I have one character, a 26 year old angel of vengeance who has moved on to become an assassin in training. She has dreams and fears, but most do not show in the book but, knowing them, I handle certain scenes differently.

Get to know your people until you know the sound of their voice, what they would say or do in almost any situation. Make them real and interesting to yourself and it will transfer to the page.

  • I've now added more info to the post! (I hope this doesn't invalidate your answer as I have aimed not to do that! ^^') – Elil Flame Jan 10 at 19:40
  • Does Stacy have a Portuguese name that the others don’t know? – Rasdashan Jan 11 at 14:42
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I think your concern isn't that the cast is too bland.

You might run the risk of them being too stereotypical.

People are people, not labels.

Remember the recent brouhaha over a black girl portraying Hermione. JK Rowlin slyly pointed out that she never described her race, even though everyone just assumes that she is white.

IMO, identities simply add some small bit of color to the character (makes them easier to picture in the readers' mind) but they alone add/detract very little from how a character is received or remembered.

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