writing

Getting to Know All About You: Characters and the Different Processes for Making them GREAT

Today’s topic was requested through one of my oldest pals, who happens to write characters as her job (cool sounding job!). I believe she writes technical copy for software programs, in an attempt to understand how and why customers might buy their products. She had some great questions for me, regarding what my process is for figuring out what my characters are like and/or whether I base them on real-life people. She also had some fantastic feedback about how reading this blog was like reading a character in my life story, which, let’s face it, is the most touching thing I’ve heard this millennium!

So after considering it a bit, I realized that I try to come up with the idea for the story first, and then I ask what kinds of characters are needed to make the story work. If the story is more plot-driven, I’m going to consider the strength of character to be paramount, because plot-driven stories can’t take off when you’ve got a weak character. However, if the plot is driven more by a message I’m trying to get across, then the characters might get away with being less than striking; the message takes time to build, like a chess game that you’re playing with the reader. You give them a pawn or two, building up momentum, while your bishop slides diagonally closer, eventually succumbing to their rook, but they hadn’t seen your knight as it suddenly appears, blocking their Queen. Everything they thought they’d known has just been turned on its head — suddenly they see their King has no way out. Bam! You deliver the message; checkmate. This kind of plot takes some easing into, and your characters are merely messengers, acting as necessary to get that message across.

And then you have plots that are character-driven, which is the other way around. I’m always drawn to the juxtaposition: think fiery young Mattie Ross, pitted against the bumbling, aging Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1968) by Charles Portis; consider neat-freak Felix Unger, holed up in an apartment with the hygienically-negligent Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965). This dynamic works because it allows the reader to learn about the characters just by having them react to each other. In these cases, it’s mostly all about showing, and not telling, and it can create opportunities for buzzing dialog while the plot just rolls on. It’s fun to write when you have a juxtaposition. So try it — put a conspiracy theorist with a lackadaisical hippy, or a brainiac scientist with a lofty poet. The plot in a character-driven story is not always the most important thing — exactly how the two opposites are thrown together is not nearly as important as what ensues once they are. And the best part about writing these characters is that everybody knows a Felix Unger, or maybe they’re the Oscar Madison of their social circle. We know what it’s like to be annoyed, or to be the annoying one, which is why it’s so easy to get emotionally invested in the juxtaposition. Polar opposites are memorable simply because they’re polar opposites (just think, would Lorelei Gilmore’s story be so endearing if she didn’t have to run away from the staunch and humorless Emily Gilmore when she was sixteen?).

Once you decide on your plot, then it’s time to hone in on those characters. So how do we create great characters? There are really so many ways to do this, that you’re never without options for tools to use. I really enjoy the character questionnaires in K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book (PenForASword Publishing, 2014).  Basically what Weiland does is asks you to get to know who you’re writing about, before you even attempt to write anything. This is a technique often used in creative writing workshops, as well; if you feel like you’re getting stuck writing a character, try writing a side piece from their perspective. Not as part of your story, but as a supplement to it, like a diary entry written by them, in first person. How would that character react to a good situation? What about a bad one? Give them a random event or two: they lose their job (how do they react?) then they go home and find their spouse in a tryst with the neighbor (then how do they react?). Once you complete this side exercise, try going back to your manuscript again and writing. Hopefully, you should be able to feel a bit more comfortable with how that character might behave, or what he or she would say.

Another thing that is important, for any writer, is giving their character detail. Details are like seasonings, in that they can take the flattest story out there and breathe life into it. You need to put a little bit everywhere, not a lot in one big spoonful. And there’s not much that is superfluous — if you think that what happened to your character that fateful summer spent at camp forty years ago still impacts their life today somehow, then write it. If you know that your character keeps a jar of lotion in the drawer of her nightstand, next to some photograph that she gazes upon every night, then write it. What are the character’s motivations? What were his/her parents like? Were they careless dictators, pushing them constantly toward achievement, only to make themselves look good? Or did they let the nanny raise them, barely involving themselves at all? Your character’s background is important, because it gives them a depth that’s necessary for a reader to believe them. The reader will likely not believe that a woman would kill her children, for instance — but give them the backdrop of a slave’s life in Civil War-era America, a la Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and it starts to make more sense.

This is the part about being a writer that’s not just challenging, but exciting. It’s like a little game that you’re playing with your reader, and it’s a game they want you to win. Your job is to entertain them, to tell them a story. Just how far will they let you take them? A good writer can get them to see the plausible, but a great writer can get them to believe the impossible.

writing

There’s only one you – and only you have the voice to prove it

Today I’m going to discuss, as previously hinted, the topic of your writing voice. To me it’s one of the most important aspects of writing. Any type of writer, whether they’re a mystery, historical fiction, non-fiction, thriller, etc, they all have their own voice that’s unique. In my opinion, having a unique perspective means that you can go ahead and tell that story that might have been told since the beginning of human experience. Sure, you can take that story, whether it’s boy-meets-girl, coming of age, fable-with-a-twist or all of the above, and make it your own. This is good news for everyone, because as my grandmother used to say, “There ain’t nothing new under the sun.” No one is going to be able to write something that’s not been done before, and that’s ok. Readers don’t expect a brand-new plot; they’re used to the age-old formulas that work, and they work because readers are familiar with them. It took me ages to understand that. As a writer, I thought I was expected to produce something that was new and exciting, like a new science fiction world. Some people can do that, and do it well — but I’m glad I never attempted to go that route, because it wouldn’t be my style.

And that’s what voice is. Voice works in two ways; the first way is it’s your own voice that you’re using to craft your story, and the second way is it’s your own voice that’s speaking to you, telling you what you should and shouldn’t pursue. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that we should challenge ourselves, especially if we are inspired by the way that someone writes or a new technique that we find really exciting. I remember when I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and I was completely blown away by the way she told the same story from multiple points-of-view. It was truly a thrilling experience to see how the different characters reacted to the same events that went on around them, and I imagined Kingsolver at work writing it, thinking how much fun it must have been putting on the different hats of her characters and writing from their perspective.

But I’m not sure that the same style would work in my writing. Maybe some day, if something calls to me to frame a story in that way, I can, but forcing myself to do it just because I saw how well it worked for Barbara Kingsolver would not be staying true to my own voice. Yes, it’s great to have writer heroes that we aspire to. Personally I really admire J.K. Rowling, not just because she’s had commercial success, but because she went from writing Harry Potter to that amazing story of The Casual Vacancy. That was a great book, in my opinion, and I admired that she had the guts to go from the world of Harry Potter to telling this touching story showcasing the fragile ego still at work in Britain’s modern class system. (Of course, the TV version was pigeon poo compared to the book, but ain’t that always the way it goes?) J.K. Rowling listened to her own voice, that said “you know what? write that story you’ve been thinking about for the last decade or so. It’s time to break free from Hogwart’s and show the world what else you’ve got.” And I’m glad that she listened.

It bears thinking about, however, the way a voice can change over time. I’m sure for a long time, while she enjoyed the commercial success of Harry Potter, she may have felt confined to that box; maybe she didn’t believe the public would accept a different story from her, especially not a story of a smack addict and her two kids suffering at the hands of her neglect, all wrapped up in a seemingly non-important framing of a vacant seat on the local council. J.K. Rowling probably wrestled for awhile before deciding that she could show everyone, including herself, that she had more to contribute.

As writers, there are definitely the doubting voices, and everyone can attest to that. Those are almost always the ones we pay attention to, and why is that? Why do we listen to the negative voices and shun the positive ones? Are we just naturally masochists, or is there more to it? Personally I believe that it’s built into the human consciousness to doubt ourselves; even people who don’t write know what it’s like to doubt themselves, which tells me that it’s pretty tightly ingrained somewhere within our historical context. I’m sure at one point in time, back in the caveman days, we had to make decisions thick-and-fast, like whether we could outrun a saber-tooth tiger. In those old situations, it paid to heed our natural warning signals, because bad decisions had probably much graver consequences then. But now, a few millennia later, this doubting has become excessive. Sometimes I also wonder that we feed the doubt because we are stalling for time, because just possibly we aren’t really ready to discover how totally awesome we really are. It’s become unattractive to root for yourself, too (which is another reason we flame those fires of doubt). Sure, maybe it does sound a bit egotistical to say, “Hey, I AM awesome!”

But really, if we don’t learn to say that to ourselves, we’re holding ourselves back. That’s what tapping into your writer’s voice is all about: giving yourself the room to be amazing.

We have to start by responding to that voice that says “No, you can’t!” by asking ourselves: what if I do chance it? It’s not like I’ll die, right? It’s not the saber-tooth tiger coming after me now. If it’s horrible, no one has to see it. What’s the harm in trying? If nothing else, you’ll be returning to that spot of writing just for the pure pleasure of it – not because it could be a commercial success, turned into a crappy three-part made for TV movie that does no justice to the brilliance of our novel. At least once a week, I think we should all just “dabble,” doing that one thing we’d like to do but for whatever reason we’ve not let ourselves. Let’s just do it for the FUN of writing. That’s the first step to developing your voice – you’ve got to give it the room to speak.

The second step is to know that what comes out might be quite crazy. You could write something that scares yourself. Maybe you’d be embarrassed to show it to anyone; you could be staring at the cursor blinking away on the screen, having just written something totally shocking, mostly for the reason that you can’t believe YOU wrote it. And you know what? That’s GOOD! When you let that authentic voice come out, you’re going to learn that you know way more about creating multi-faceted characters than you realized. Dare to only write characters who, when they start talking, only say the things that you’ve never had the guts to say in real life. That’s when your writing goes to another dimension, and you will amaze yourself.

There is only one you out there in the world. It might be hard to remember that, because we are only the most recent in a long span of lives, with a lot of the same hopes and faults as generations of humans before us. And yet, our DNA is unique. Our fingerprints are unique. And the experiences we have been through are different than anyone else’s. So give yourself the breathing space to let all that out, and see what fantastic things come from it.