Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lesson 7 1/2: Characters Are Puzzling

After reading my last post, you are probably chomping at the bit, eager for examples of how to add depth to your characters. Well, the wait is over! Here it is:

In my first novel, The Seasons of Mae, the story begins in St. Louis, but the bulk of the story takes place in my beloved Montana. Just as the seasons change and bring death, rebirth and prosperity to Montana's rugged landscape, the seasons of Mae's life change, bringing her opportunities to travel on a path much different than the one her parents laid out for her.

But first, we need to get Mae to Montana.

In the first chapter of the book, we meet her sister's beau, who stands to inherit his father's railroad fortune. Robert works for his father, and more importantly, is overseeing the construction of the railroad across Montana. Here is Mae's opportunity.

Thus far in the book, we know that Mae is unhappy at home and feels continually slighted by her parents.

We are in the dining room, where Robert is discussing a last-minute trip to Montana that will pull him away from Mae's family and his pending proposal to Mae's sister, Alice. Alice is unhappy that Robert will be leaving before she gets a ring on her finger. There is a tense silence in the room as everyone sees how upset Alice is. And then Mae does this:

"I would love to go with you," Mae blurted out.

She has just invited herself along with Robert on his business trip to Montana. There are several problems with the way this was written.

1. There's no mention beforehand of Mae's desire to see the Wild West. Perhaps she could have been reading books or newspaper articles about the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the vast opportunities for those looking to start a new life. The reader should have seen that this was a hidden interest. It could even be something as simple as mentioning that Mae preferred to spend her time outdoors, enjoying the scenery, rather than sitting indoors sipping lemonade.

2. As Robert is speaking of Montana, the dialogue is all external, meaning that we are not getting a glimpse into any of the character's heads, with Mae being the most important character. Before she spoke out in such an atypical manner for the time period, we should have had some insight into what she was thinking so the reader can understand this strange request. Something like:

Montana? Mae had always longed to go there. The untamed beauty of the state was touted as unrivaled. It was a land of endless opportunities--a land of promise. It was exactly the kind of place a girl with a restless heart and stifling parents could go to stretch her legs for awhile. This was her chance. Before she was able to give it a second thought, she quickly said, "I would love to go with you!"

In order for a reader to grow fond of a character, your reader needs to know what makes your character tick. How often have you visited with an acquaintance and thought, "I wish I knew what they were thinking," or "I wonder what makes them behave this way?" Those people you are the most deeply connected with are those you know well--you understand their motives, their desires, their passions. Your reader needs to have this same relationship with your characters.

But remember, don't TELL your readers who the character is ALL AT ONCE. Remember to weave.

Here's another analogy that might help you: think of character development like a puzzle. Your reader can't assemble an entire puzzle all at once. It takes time. They might just get a glimpse of who the character is at first, but after YOUR diligence as the author, the reader will be able to build an entire picture of the character's physical traits and see the essence of their soul.

You also want to make certain you don't spend too much time inside a character's head. I recently read a book that was 95% thoughts and 5% action. It was very annoying. We read to escape our own inner conflicts and thoughts; getting trapped in someone else's inner turmoil is not a release at all. Give just enough for your reader to understand, but not so much that your reader wants out. Balance thoughts with actions based on those thoughts.

3. If I add the paragraph in italics from step #2 to Mae's inner dialogue, it certainly helps the reader gain better insight into Mae's request to go to Montana, but something is still missing.

Physical actions.

If she's nervous about asking something so uncouth, we should see it in her body. Perhaps she could fiddle with her fork. Maybe she could clear her throat before speaking, indicating that she is hesitant to speak, yet she cannot stifle it. Do her cheeks flush after she realizes she's spoken the desires of her heart? Does her stomach burn with indigestion when she sees the glare her mother gives her for saying something so brazen? In my manuscript, none of these things happen, which makes Mae seem very one-dimensional. 

Again, you want to be careful not to over-do it. Too much eye-rolling, heart-stuttering and blood-boiling can make it sound like your character's bodies have been taken over by a legion of demons.  Add just enough for your reader to sense what is happening physically. Body language is oftentimes key to understanding those around us, so it needs to be another piece to the puzzle you are giving to your readers. Make certain physical reactions are included during key moments, such as the example given above. If it's a plot point, we sure as heck want to know how the characters are reacting.

Here's a better example from the next chapter:

Mae quickly shrugged her shoulder to remove his hand from her arm and turned towards him, her face feeling hot like fire. “No!” she exclaimed. “You must propose to Alice!”

What do you think has just happened, without even knowing the entire context of the scene? What does Mae's reaction tell you about her integrity? What does it tell you about her courage? Is she able to speak her mind, even if the situation is uncomfortable?

Ask yourself questions like these as you review your manuscript. How are my character's thoughts, actions, and body language being portrayed? Have I given enough puzzle pieces, or have I given too many? And most importantly: when the puzzle is completed, is my character someone the reader has grown to love?

Give your characters hearts and then send blood pulsing through their veins. Make them breathe, feel, touch, love. Give them the ultimate gift--life.

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