Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What a Character!

As readers, don’t most of us enjoy identifying with a main character of a story, finding someone we can cheer on, even crawl into their skin for a vicarious adventure? I know I do.

Characters in our stories are human beings—readers want them to seem like real people. So we have to get to know them as well as we know ourselves. Even those of you who are writing memoirs or family history—it’s going to be a lot more engaging and readable if the people you’re writing about seem three-dimensional. Developing such a character is one of the most important elements of writing and can be one of the hardest.

I read a lot of books and often, as soon as I go on to the next, I’ll forget about the plot of the one before. But I love it when I discover a compelling character that stays with me long after I finish. Edward in 600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster is such a character. He is a middle-aged man with Aspergers disorder who keeps a log of the minute he awakes each morning, records the high and low temperate, eats the same thing for lunch and dinner every day, and every night at 10 p.m. sharp, watches videos of DragnetI (in a certain order). Such a description of a character might make you think it would be a rather boring story. But Edward is such an endearing character, with the cares and hopes and dreams we all have, that I found myself cheering him on toward each small step of normalcy.

Here’s a fun four-sentence exercise to introduce your characters to yourself:
1. Introduce a character (age, sex).
2. Bring character home to dwelling place
3. Greet someone in the home, tell something about the mood of the char.
4. Move character out of room (off camera).

What did you learn about this character? It’s amazing what he or she will tell you in four sentences! Start out each character like this to find out about him/her. Fill in the information and find the emotional connection.

What are some key elements a compelling character should have?

The ability to care. What does your character care about? What is the goal? Edward cares that his father doesn’t seem to love him. This element of caring sets the character up in how he/she is going to live life, how he’s going to react to certain things. Giving your character something to care about commits her to a stance to live by.

Conflict. We have to challenge him, threaten her and what they care about. Throw the character into a situation that challenges what he cares about and threatens the thing he feels is important. A precious collection is stolen. A girl enters a dangerous relationship. You create risk. This doesn’t always have to be through a villain—it can be weather, hard times, a moral dilemma, friction between the characters. The twists and turns of your plot will come from these things. In my book, 14-year-old Nettie cares very deeply about her family, but wants to ride in rodeos so badly she is willing to risk ostracism and a wrecked reputation as well as broken bones.

Motivation is what causes the character to act. Is it to save his own life? Someone else’s he cares about? To preserve her reputation? The reasons relate to the character’s inner character. Something drives him to rescue the kidnapped child, slay the dragon, challenge the alien invaders, or track down the mass murderer.

Motivation often comes from a desire for change. Give a character so compulsive a desire to make a given change that he can’t let it be, and you have the basis for a story. And your character MUST change. It doesn’t need to be huge, it can be subtle. It can be a character’s struggle with addiction, mid-life crisis—trying to get out of a rut, a change in attitude toward something or someone. Readers don't examine stories looking for the motivational aspects. However, they instinctively know when they aren't there. They'll know the story is flawed and will stop reading.

Donald Maas, a New York agent, in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, emphasizes that your character must be “larger than life:”

Take Strong Action. Do what we in real life wouldn’t do— Act in ways that are unusual, unexpected, dramatic, decisive, full of consequences and are irreversible.

Show strength to overcome the problems and conflicts he’s thrown into. What makes characters appealing is not their weaknesses, but their strengths, not their defeats but their triumphs—how they overcome their setbacks.

Inner conflict—striving to attain the seemingly impossible. Struggle is more compelling than satisfaction. Example: Scarlett O’Hara longs for the solid comfort of Ashley Wilkes, but who is the great love of her life? The roguish Rhett Butler.

Self regard—emotions matter, he/she learns from them. Allow your character to measure himself—How have I changed/ What caused that change? Do I long to return to my old way of feeling, or am I determined never to go back to that frame of mind again?

Wit & spontaneity—shock, sting, snap your character awake with humor or a reaction you wouldn’t dream of, i.e. tell off your boss, spit in your father’s face, drive a car into a ditch just to scare the daylights out of your date, slap a man you later sleep with.

Transformation—a character in trouble has sympathetic qualities. He’s aware he’s in trouble, tries to change. Readers need reasons to hope.

Character Qualities: Things that give a lasting & powerful impression of a character: For example, forgiveness and self sacrifice—what is the character willing to give up to achieve a goal?

A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. I'm so glad I found you.

    This is especially excellent:
    1. Introduce a character (age, sex).
    2. Bring character home to dwelling place
    3. Greet someone in the home, tell something about the mood of the char.
    4. Move character out of room (off camera).
    It's almost exactly like a scene from a movie. Only that the mood of the character on-screen has to come from what he says and how he reacts to the "someone" which is reflected in both dialogue and facial expressions. etc (no author to tell us what the character is thinking/feeling).
    What you have posted here is so excellent I'm copying it for future reference.
    I am now going to look up Cowgirl Dreams.

  2. Excellent post Heidi. I think characterisation is all about relationships; even self-relating. Characters provide the reader with information about each other as they interact.

    Blood-Red Pencil

  3. What a great approach to characterization. Thanks for this.

  4. I really like the point about how the character might want one thing (Scarlett wants Ashley) but in fact be barking up the wrong tree. And about the character yearning to attain something that is missing. Great post - I'm off to tweet!

  5. Very useful post. Thank you. Glad to have found this blog.


  6. I'm so glad this post was helpful to you all. Thank you, Ann,and all who commented.

  7. Wow. Thank you for this. Especially for highlighting what Maas said about showing strength. I am going to totally rethink a character based on this.

    Thank you, thank you, thank.

  8. Heidi, this is a fantastic—and practical—post! It drives home the point that readers must be touched in some way by the characters, but those characters must be larger than life.

    This is a particularly good quote (from the book by Donald Maas): Do what we in real life wouldn’t do—Act in ways that are unusual, unexpected, dramatic . . . . Hey, this sells books, and that's the goal for most of us writers.

  9. As long as a character taps into some primal urge - hunger, fear, maternal protection, etc - and explores the urge through conflict, I'm usually hooked. This list is great. I would add that it should serve more as a guide rather than a play by numbers device...otherwise we risk sounding artificial in our writing.


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