Writing With Character(s)

It seems like a simple enough task. You’ve got a brilliant premise, a poignant setting, and enough intriguing ideas to start a discussion group. All you need are some engaging characters to bring your world to life. But, therein, lies the problem. In the same way that poor casting can ruin what could have otherwise been an epic film (Oz the Great and Powerful comes to mind), bland, generic, or unbelievable characters can seriously undermine even the best of stories.

Oz-the-Great-and-Powerful_510x297.jpg

Source: http://img2-1.timeinc.net/ew/i/2013/02/07/Oz-the-Great-and-Powerful_510x297.jpg

You’ve likely read one before. The cover art catches your eye amidst the sea of novels on the shelf. You read an enticing synopsis on the inside cover and decide to give it a shot. To your dismay, the summary turns out to be nothing more than a cleverly worded ploy to swindle you of your hard earned cash. You trudge through line upon line of vanilla dialogue, hoping the premise that piqued your interest will resurface in a significant enough way to compensate for the characters you’ve become callous and indifferent towards, but in the end, all you’re left with is a profound wish that you could go back in time and take back the hours you’ve wasted.

This is the last impression any writer wants to leave with his/her readers, so how does one avoid it? While there is a certain amount of innate ability involved, there are also a few tips that can help you avoid running your story aground on the shores of mediocrity. I like to remember these tips with 3 “D’s”:

Definition

Distance

Dialogue

Definition simply means planning out the the identity of your characters. What do they look an sound like. Are they soft-spoken, outgoing, obnoxious, gruff? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How about personality quirks? And, probably most important, what is their motivation or stake in the plot? Take Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, for example. Here is a character who, while rising from obscurity to become a true heroine, maintains a real sense of humanity. Through the course of the trilogy, she hurts, she cries, she uses people, and she displays serious trust issues – all things you would expect from someone who goes through everything she does – but she remains true to her core motivation throughout.

Katniss - katniss-everdeen Photo

Source: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/katniss-everdeen/images/28914701/title/katniss-photo

Try making a grid that lists these traits for all the significant characters in your story. Once you have it, you can also note how your characters respond to one another. From there, you have a quick reference guide against which to compare the things your characters do to make sure they, well, stay in character. Creating characters that feel real and believable is sure to help you connect with your readers and leave them with a lasting impression they’ll want to share.

Second is distance. The meaning of this is twofold: it means creating uniqueness between all your characters, but it also means differentiating your characters from yourself.

The first half is relatively simple if you, like most people , have been around a variety of personalities in your life. Visualize a color spectrum and try placing your characters along it based on the core emotions they act upon or elicit from others. Do you notice any clumps? It’s important to do this objectively and maybe even have someone help you. Just like a painting done with only primary colors, a story without enough variety in its characters can feel simplistic, predictable, and boring.

A really wonderful example of a story with a full spectrum of characters is, of course, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. If you haven’t read this yet, come out from under your rock and give it a whirl. Seriously, though, whether you like YA Fantasy or not, you can’t deny Rowling’s skill for creating memorable characters. Love them or hate them, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Sybill Trelawney, Mad Eye Moody, and Dolores Umbridge.

Top 10 Most Memorable Teachers from the Harry Potter series Alastor Mad eye Moody

Top 10 Most Memorable Teachers from the Harry Potter series  Dolores Umbridge

Source: http://molempire.com/2011/08/02/top-10-most-memorable-harry-potter-professors/

The second half of distance is distance from yourself. As the author, you naturally tend to write some of yourself into your characters, but the real trick is learning how to “turn yourself off” when needed. I tend to have a very lawful good (any D & D nerds out there?) view of life, but what about when I have to write for a villain? Writing any of my persona into that character will likely render it ineffective for its intended purpose – villainy. Why? Because I’m not a villain.

When writing for characters dissimilar to ourselves, it’s often best to silence your inner moral compass and, instead, draw from others you’ve known. Have a character who’s supposed to be annoying? Use an obnoxious colleague as inspiration and build from there. Writing too much of yourself into your characters is a surefire way to make them seem like you mass-produced them out on an assembly line, so remember to seek that neutral place within and keep arms-length from your characters.

The Office

Source: http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2013/0515/office_g_mp_576.jpg

The final “D” is dialogue. Now, you may be thinking “Nick, this is just a natural extension of the other two D’s. You’re just trying to make it an even three by adding fluff.” While you are partly correct, I’m calling out dialogue separately because it’s so important maintaining consistency and believability in your characters.

To write effective dialogue, you really need to have a solid understanding of not only who the speaker is but who he/she is speaking to and how they feel about one another. If your protagonist is driven by a need to find his lost sister, for example, he probably isn’t going to invite someone he expects to be involved to tea. This is an obvious example, but how might his drive effect the way he interacts with everyone else? If someone you care for is missing, you believe foul play is at hand, but every lead you follow leaves you with more questions, you’re likely to become very suspicious and maybe even paranoid of others. Depending how far you want to take things, this character might even begin to experience a degree of psychosis – hallucinations and such – as he becomes more consumed by his quest. Compare everything your characters say – and think – to the core personality traits and motivations you define for them, and ask “Is this really something this person would say?” It also really helps to read your dialog aloud to make sure it sounds like something that anyone would say. 🙂

While the three “D’s” – definition, distance, and dialogue – I’ve laid out above don’t capture everything you might want to consider while writing for your characters, they do provide a good foundation to get you thinking in the right direction. Follow these tips and your characters will be springing to life from your pages before you know it. Happy writing, my friends!

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Discovering Your Unique Voice

A thought to ponder:

If you become too focused on becoming the next (author of your choice), you risk never becoming the first you.

I’m sure someone of greater import than myself has said something similar before, but, ironically, the origin of the thought is, in this case, not as important as the thought itself.  As aspiring authors, it’s only natural to take cues from those who have inspired us to take up the craft.  We pour over the published works of those enjoying the sort of success we all hope to attain: to, one day, be counted among the favored few whose stories are read and loved by devoted patrons around the globe.  While the emulation of our forebears can certainly help illuminate the path ahead, it can also lead us astray if not tempered with the proper perspective.

The first of two potential issues arising from emulation is the deification of those you are emulating.  Let’s say that you, like myself, are currently reading Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno (or perhaps one of its predecessors that were, admittedly, a little more gripping), and as you read, you find yourself marveling at how well-versed Mr. Brown is in his subject matter.  Then, you take note of the way he adroitly weaves the plot lines of this numerous primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters together, surprising you with the pattern that emerges where, at first, there were only disparate threads.  Like the skillful author he is, Mr. Brown has drawn you into his world, his paradigm, and in light of his considerable commercial success, you arrive at the belief that every word he has written is perfect and he can do no wrong.

Mind you, I mean no disrespect to Dan Brown in choosing him to help illustrate this issue.  In my mind, he is a writer’s writer.  His meticulous attention to detail and accuracy in the settings of his novels is remarkable and he can twist an intellectually stimulating tale as well as anyone I’ve ever read.  That said, he is not perfect.  He is human just like you and I, and we are all prone to error.

Simply because Dan Brown fancies the occasional use of an unqualified “it” now and again does not make it correct.  Conversely, the fact that other authors avoid said usage of “it” like the plague doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.  While it’s true that there are generally accepted rules of grammar that college professors would all love if the literary community at large mechanically adhered to without question, if the proliferation of The Twilight Saga has taught me anything, it’s that accepted conventions fall victim to the perception of the masses.

Stephanie Meyer is arguably a much less polished author than Dan Brown, yet her books sparked a genuine cultural phenomenon the world over despite her lack of grammatical prowess.  She connected with her audience through the humanity of her characters (shockingly self-centered though some of them may be), whereas some would describe Dan Brown’s characters as thimble-deep.

The point here is that we shouldn’t do things just because authors we admire did them.  Some of us can thrive in a world of slightly altered reality and careful research.  Others prefer free-flowing imagination and sparkly vampires.  Ultimately, it’s your story.  If something feels right in the context of your world, do it, and if it doesn’t, don’t, no matter what you’ve seen others do before you.

The second and more serious issue that can arise from emulation is the loss of your unique voice as an author.  To help illustrate this problem, let’s consider, for a moment, the incomparable J.K. Rowling.  This woman is everything a fiction writer aspires to be: astonishingly creative, possessed of keen understanding of human nature, remarkably easy to read, and, of course, wildly successful.  With all this going for her, who wouldn’t think of borrowing at least a page or two from Rowling’s playbook? 

Suppose you’ve been held captive in a subterranean mine since before the turn of the century and recently emerged to discover the wonder that is Harry Potter.  You feverishly devour the entire series in an extended sitting (you’re very hungry from enduring your malnourished captivity after all).  Later, someone informs you that the books were not meant for eating but reading, so you buy another set and dive in.  After the last exquisite line of book seven, you vow to pen your own series of seven novels in which the protagonist, an eleven year old girl who lives in the attic over the stairs, receives a curious letter from a school called Pigzits stating that she is not as ordinary as everyone previously supposed.

Hang on.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if you’re writing a novel with the intent of seeing any return on your investment of countless hours, you should probably consider offering your intended audience something original.  While there does seem to be an emerging market for copycat novels – books aimed at those who just can’t get enough of, for example, teen vampire romance – like so many bands that rode the coattails of their predecessors to instant fame in the 1980’s, their success is likely to be short-lived.

While there are certainly many things we can learn from the works of J.K. Rowling and others like her, we mustn’t lose sight of what made their works great in the first place – original ideas.  Before Harry Potter grew to mass popularity, no one had ever heard of Muggles, Quidditch, or house elves.  Why?  Because they were all original creations from the mind of the author.  J. K. Rowling created an entirely fictional, and yet believable, extension of our own reality and now we have movies and conventions and even a theme park dedicated to it all.  Unique ideas, no matter how absurd, tend to stick out in people’s minds, and are, thus, instantly memorable.

So, be inspired by the works of others.  Employ their literary devices, add new words to your vocabulary, and glean what you can from their techniques.  Then, plumb the depths of your imagination for freshness – the bold, the illogical, and the preposterous –  and don’t be afraid to question the reasons of those you admire.  In so doing, you will discover your own unique voice, and, maybe, go on to create something truly spectacular.

Happy writing everyone!

Nick