Thursday, April 17, 2014

Characters - Peel Away Those Layers

To me, a book is ALL about the characters. Strong characters can shore up a weak plot, but weak characters won't help even the strongest story. Characters should be like artichokes. You don't get to the heart until you do some serious work peeling away the layers. What the reader sees, as well as what other characters see when they meet a character, be it protagonist or a secondary character, will be superficial at first. Perhaps the character was too good to be true, and as time goes on, faults are revealed. Or maybe it's the other way around. An unlikeable character turns out to be golden inside.

We spend a lot of time getting to know our characters so we'll know how they'll respond in any situation we subject them to. Or will we? It's just as important to know how your character will behave when confronted with the unexpected. And, as authors, we need to keep the unexpected happening.

What happens when your hero finds himself in an unexpected environment? How will he cope? Does he grumble and complain? Does he make the best of it? Go into hiding until it passes? In one of my Blackthorne, Inc. books, Where Danger Hides, Dalton, the hero, is a covert ops specialist. How does he respond when Miri, the heroine, drags him along to her shift as a 'baby cuddler' and he's forced to face not only something he's unfamiliar with, but something that calls up memories he's tried to bury. Will he suck it up? Refuse? Explain? Or suddenly remember somewhere else he has to be?

The best characters are the ones who have to cope with NOT having their creature comforts, or their professional tools. What happens when the hero is a chef renowned for his veal and lamb, and he prepares an exquisite meal to impress the heroine? Who, he discovers, is a strict vegetarian.

Or the hero who's a whiz with technology: What happens when he doesn't have any of his fancy equipment? Does he give up? Go into MacGyver mode and create a high-tech gizmo? Or utilize a totally new way to solve his problem, not relying on technology at all?

Peeling away those character layers makes for three-dimensional characters—characters your readers will care about.



Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

17 comments :

  1. True, Terry, but may I make a point? Character ensures empathy, if written well, and will engage readers, but only so far. The characters must drive the story to make the reader continue turning the pages.
    I start my fiction with detailed character sketches of each player and then enjoy placing the barriers in place that they'll have to negotiate on the journey to denouement. Sometimes, my characters surprise me, sometimes they disappoint, sometimes they delight. But taking the journey with them, led by them, always ensures an exciting ride, often into unexplored territory.
    Thanks for this interesting post.

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    1. Thanks for sharing what works for you, Stuart. I hit page 150 in the WIP and wrote a paragraph that was one of those light bulb moments for my character's deepest secret. Usually I know this before I start, but with this book, I was working more on plot than character discovery. However, there are a lot of character bits and pieces that I don't worry about until I come to a place in the story and ask "Why would he do that?" Like you, I throw barriers at them all the time, but it's usually as I get to the point where I need to know where the character or story is headed, and then I toss in the detour. They're usually surprises for me, and my readers' comments frequently say, "I didn't see that coming!" Neither did I.

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  3. Great post, Terry, and I agree. Unlike Stuart, in a standalone, I have an idea of my characters, but I let them drive, not only the story, but how they react. I don't know in advance, just like I don't know in real life how I'll react to something until I'm faced with it. In fiction, I hope I'm surprised. Not so much in real life. It's harder for me in my series because I don't want to repeat the character traits the reader already knows, so that's more of a slippery slope.

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    1. I agree. My mystery series, where I know the main players, presents the "how can I show their growth?" challenges. My other series are more 'connected books' so repeating characters usually have secondary roles.

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  4. Couldn't agree more, Terry ... but, I wonder if it is a good thing or not when my wife calls me a 'great character'?

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    1. Of, course, Chris! (And you might mine those traits for a 'fictional' character)

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  5. The top reason I quit reading a book or watching a movie or TV series is because I no longer care what happens to any of the characters. For me, plot is nothing without characters. That's why I wrote Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict and the companion Build a Cast Workbook. If you start off with real character models and sculpt them to fit your needs, you're well on your way to making a connection with your audience.

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    1. Diana, I'm with you on the television thing. I got the Homeland series from Netflix, and Hubster watched the first 3 episodes while I was out of town. He said he didn't want to watch any more of them because he didn't care what happened to any of the characters.

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  6. Excellent post, Terry, and thanks for those great examples. You are so right about how the unexpected can challenge and deepen characterization, and I think giving the reader the unexpected is just as important in plotting. Keep them guessing all the time.

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    1. Maryann -- and it's so much easier to give them the unexpected if you're not a plotter! :-)

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  7. I agree that great characterization is vital to keep a reader turning those pages. And an intriguing, well-thought-out plot serves as a complementary background for the various qualities of those characters to come into play. As you note, however, even the strongest plot cannot salvage a story in which the characters fail to connect with the readers. Excellent post, Terry.

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  8. I do recall a writing workshop where a best-selling author was mentioned as the exception to the rule. The speaker said, "You could drop a piano on any one of the characters and nobody would care." I read a couple of his books and had to agree. But he sells. I still prefer characters I care about, but never meant to imply that you can abandon the plot.

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    1. Hmmm. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. Question: did this exception occur before or after the writer became a best-seller? In other words, was it his name or his stories that sold his books? Just curious. :-)

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    2. As I recall, this was his first big novel. I'm not familiar enough with him to know if he had a lot of "not so best-sellers" before that, but most of the people at that conference were saying things like, "Wish I'd have thought of that story, because I'd have written a GOOD book with it."

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  9. I tend to let the characters randomly tell their own story. I'm a pantser and it's showing in my latest attempt at a novel. I'm now having to go through and break it down into a bunch of notes. The first one I'm working on is who are the characters, what motivates them, and what is their purpose in the story.

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    1. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict -- always good to keep them in mind. I'm a pantser myself, but I've managed to get through 13 novels without having to resort to plotting or outlining! :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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