Monday, February 15, 2010

How to Write a Novel 3: Characters, Part I

Quote: “I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.
--Stanley Elkin

Song playing:
My Hero by the Foo Fighters

I hope you all enjoyed my Love at First Sight Scene! It was a lot of fun to write.

Today is Progress Report Day. I am still doing the editing slog, that seems like it will never end. Of course, it will end someday, but right now there is no end in sight. *sigh* It will get better.

I had a great Valentine's Day. I saw Legion yesterday with my finace, and it was awesome! I LOVE Paul Beatty (Chauncer from A Knight's Tale, Silas from the Da Vinci Code). It's about angels coming to Earth to bring the apocalypse as directed by God, and Micheal (played by Paul Beatty) decides instead to protect the unborn child of a waitress. If he is born, mankind has a shot. If not...

Anywho, without further rambling from yours truely, here is the next installment of "How to Write a Novel":

You could chose to develop the plot next (more so than what I talked about in How to Write a Novel 2: From Idea to Plot) depending on the idea you have. If the idea is a situation (what if there was a hostage situation in a bank?), I normally continue to work on the plot. If the idea I have stems from a character (a woman is pregnant and her best friend helps her through the pregnancy), then I delve further into the characters.

I am going to talk about characters first because a) because it’s my blog, and my reign here is great and terrible, and b) because most (read: 99%) of my ideas have at least the inklings of a character in them. I actually had think really hard about the example I use for a situational plot that didn’t have a least a little bit of a character in them (the half and half ideas are something like: what if two friends are racing cars against each other and one of them gets badly hurt? The situation of the accident is there, but there is a strong suggestion of character as well (the two friends).

Due to the length of the post about Characters, I am breaking this sucker up into two posts. So here’s Part I:

1. Characters and Plot

Characters and plot are conjoined twins. You might work on one separately and then the other, but in the end your readers really shouldn’t be able to tell which came first. The plot serves as a vessel which you test your character in. Basically, think of the plot as a large swimming pool, and you, the writer, are tossing your character into it, in order to see how the character gets out. Does he swim? Does he let himself drown? Does he grow gills, and make a home in the pool, ruining your summer block party plans?

But, if the character is underdeveloped, no one is really going to care who gets tossed into the pool. You can tailor your plot to really bring out your character, but you need to know first what would get a rise out of them to begin with. If your character is indeed a mermaid, tossing them into a pool really isn’t going to test them. Yanking them out of the pool, however, will.

A novel is about someone getting into trouble, and finding their way of out it. Even the classics have some character in some sort of trouble, and detail how the character finds a solution. The trouble doesn’t have to be external, like being tossed into a pool. It could take place entirely within one room. But the character is still being tested, still pushed to their limits. And if we don’t care about the character, we don’t really care what is happening to them either.

So first we need to make a character, one that you can stand being with through hundreds of pages, and many revisions, and one that your readers will enjoy reading about.

2. Creating a character

If you start out with a character in mind, great. If you don’t, no problem. Remember, nothing during the process of writing it set in stone, no, not even after you write the first draft. Getting the book published is as close to being set in stone as there is, and even that isn’t as permanent as you think.

I’ll give you an example, just to hammer the point home: Years (and several more books into the series) after publishing the Dark Tower 1: the Gunslinger, Stephen King ret-conned (a geek term to mean that someone changes what was previously established to make it fit with the most current material. TV shows do this A LOT) the first book. After he had the series developed more, the first book didn’t seem to fit quite as well, so he released another edition of the first book, to include the new ideas that he came up with in the later books.

This is not an excuse to be lazy, and say you’ll just fix that issue later, just an example to help you understand that things will change as you work on your novel, even after you write the first draft.

So let’s say you don’t have an idea for a character at all, your story idea is almost entirely situational. We will use the hostage situation at the bank scenario, because who doesn’t love a good Characters Force to Be with Each Other conflict? I know I do! First, figure out who has to be there. Since it’s a hostage situation, there will be robbers, hostages, and probably bank employees and the police outside. Depending on what sort of book you want to write, you might chose from any of the above characters, or someone who isn’t listed yet. With each choice of a main character comes a different focus for the story. A main character from the hostages will bring the focus on being trapped in a dangerous situation, and what a person might do to get out of it. A main character from the robbers will bring the focus on what reasons a person might commit such a crime. Your main character doesn’t have to be a good guy, but the reader should be able to relate to him. Chuck Palahniuk is very good at creating main characters that I don’t necessarily like, but are interesting enough for me to want to know what happens to them. Your main character could be a cop, and the focus could shift to the outside of the bank, and his attempts to negotiate with the robbers. You could chose a main character who has nothing to do with the immediate situation, like the mother of one of the hostage victims, and the focus shifts to how helpless and powerless she feels, and what she does about that.

Or, you could have more than one main character, and shift from one character to another. Whatever choice you make will impact the sort of story you tell, so try to keep that in mind. It’s not that you can’t tell the same story with any one of the characters, but there is normally a better choice for the main character who can best gets across what sort of story you want to tell.

That choice is: the person with the most to lose.

Who would be the most devastated by the events of your story? Who would stand the most to gain, to lose? The answer to that question is normally the best choice for the main character. Of course, you might have a brilliant idea that defies all conventions, and if so, God speed good fellow! Remember, take what you find useful from these posts and discard the rest.

So, let’s say we’ve decided to write from two different people’s point of view (POV for short): the cop and one of the hostages. Now you start figuring out what sort of people they are. You do the same sort of brainstorming process you did with your idea, asking yourself what if? and trying to figure out what you find the most interesting. My first thought for the cop was he just got out of hostage negotiation school, and it was his first day back. Ouch. I could decide to put that idea aside, or just go with my first thoughts. Depending on my mood, I might do one or the other. Sometimes the character pops up in my head, I can see them perfectly and hear them talking. If that’s the case, I leave the character concept alone, figuring that this character has decided to adopt me (I am picturing a young detective in a beige trench coat). If the idea is still sort of hazy, I usually continue with the questions, just to be thorough.

Usually when I have a character in mind, I am like a terrier with a chew toy. I work on the idea or element that feels the most real to me, and let things spin out from there. In this case, it’s Detective Brewster, and his Very Bad Day. I could vaguely flesh out some of the other characters, like figure out the robbers, or who the other hostage is. Here is something neat: your character choices will directly influence the genre and sub-genre of story you are telling. If I wanted a romantic story, I could make the hostage character a female, and she uses her cunning to get the robbers to let her talk to Detective Brewster, and at the end, manages to help diffuse the situation. If I wanted a book closer to a buddy cop story, I could make the hostage character a Regular Joe, and he and Detective Brewster go have drinks at the end. If I wanted to really put Detective Brewster in a bind, I could make one of the hostages, either the other main character or one of the other hostages, someone he knows personally, like his sister or daughter.

3. Character Sheets

At this point, I usually start with a quick character sketch for the main characters. Ahhh, character questionnaires. Another topic of hot debate for writers. Despite their existence, I don’t actually know a writer, outside of myself, that uses in depth character sketches. Most of writers I know, and have read about, feel like they are too stifling, and a waste of time. I can see where they are coming from.

But, indulge me and my soapbox: I LOVE character sheets. I used to feel they were a waste of time too, who care’s what my character’s zodiac sign is?, until I read Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens. Talk about life changing.

Lukeman has three ENTIRE chapters on characterization. He has pages, and pages of questions for your characters, but the point of those questions isn’t to just check off some boxes, or fill it out, and then never look at it again, but to think about how a trait will affect your character. I feel like this is where the point of character sheets gets lost. It’s not that you fill out a laundry list, but you are trying to dig deep into your character, to find out who they are. At the end of the major sections in Lukeman’s characterization, he asks questions about how the decisions you just made about your character (Detective Brewster is a republican, but his parents are Democrats) will affect them.

Even if you don’t answer all of the questions, just thinking about how character traits will influence the plot is helpful. Maybe your character moved from the mountains but has a thriving business in the Keys. She longs for the mountains, but doesn’t want to move her seashell business, where she knows she won’t do as well. This detail might not be important to the story, it might not have any bearing on the outcome of your plot, but if you have that in mind while writing about her, it will deepen your understanding of her. It might only be mentioned once that she grew up in the mountains, but if this detail helped YOU the writer see her as a person, than it did it’s job.

Character traits are relative. Most authors know a lot more about their characters than ever makes it into fiction, but the point isn’t to cram every character detail into your story, or conversely, to only use the details that apply directly to your story. The point is to feel like your characters are living, breathing people. Because if they aren’t real to you, your readers aren’t going to believe they are real either.

Some authors can write perfectly real, fleshed out characters without ever using a character sheet, and some authors (holds up her hand) think that character sheets are little gifts from heaven. Whatever works for you.

This covers the basics of who your characters could be. There is loads more information about your characters, but I have tried to stick with what I felt was the most pertinent.

Tomorrow we’re going to talk more about the psychology of your character, the inner workings that really makes or breaks a character.

If anyone has any questions, or comments, feel free to post in the comments section. How do you come up with your characters? How do you make them seem real?

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