Jul 18 2008

Problem Characters: Cameo Celebrities

Published by at 10:13 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

It is tempting to write historical celebrities into any historically themed work (“look, there’s Winston Churchill!”). If you do so, please avoid these common mistakes.

1. Please don’t have historical celebrities praise any of your characters. The more the historical characters gush about how impressive your characters are, the harder it is to read. For example, Orson Welles tells the protagonist of Kavalier and Clay that his comic book series is “great stuff” and that he “doesn’t like to miss a word.”

2. Avoid using historical celebrities as damsels in distress. It’s a tired trope that, of all the hundreds of people at the party, only your story’s main character is able to perform the Heimlich on Winston Churchill.

3. Please don’t cameo a character before he does the things that make him famous. It will seem horribly awkward to readers. For example, a WWII story probably shouldn’t use a cameo of Lieutenant John Kennedy because there’s no reason JFK would be noteworthy in the context of a WWII story. Drawing on your modern perspective (that Kennedy is noteworthy because he will later become famous) will jar readers and break their immersion in a story that’s supposed to be set during WWII.

4. Is it even remotely plausible that your characters would interact with the celebrity in the way you’ve described? Would General Custer really strike up conversations with a random member of his large army? (Not quite large enough, I suppose).

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