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.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lesson 7: Bring Your Characters To Life Without A Magic Wand

One of the most sobering realizations I had as an early writer was this: there are no new stories. Literary experts disagree on the exact number of plots which have been rewritten time and time again, but there's a 99.9% chance your storyline has been told before.

Does that mean you should quit writing?

No, it does not.

But if you are going to make your novel rise above scores of other similar novels, you are going to have to make your book as unique as your own fingerprint. How do you do this?

By creating realistic, compelling characters.

While you may delight in reading a book where the prose is flowery and poetic, or you may devour a book where non-stop action keeps you turning the pages, when you think about the books that you truly love--the ones that linger with you for days or months or even years--chances are you felt a deep connection with the characters. They left an imprint in your heart, just like a living, breathing person.

 The author's role is not to be a like puppeteer, 
controlling the character's actions, but  ...

to be like the Blue Fairy, giving the character life.

How do you create lifelike characters?

Well, there isn't a simple technique or a simple trick. Like everything else in writing, it's a process. Word by word, chapter by chapter, you build your character's personality and strengths, as well as weaknesses. But before your characters can come alive on the pages of your book, you need to be well acquainted with your characters before you ever type a single word.

I keep a cheat sheet for each of my characters. I do this during the plotting phase, but I do change or add to the cheat sheet as the story develops. On my cheat sheet, I list the following for each character:

Main goal:
Motivated by:
Inner need:
Flaw blocking need:
Core trait:
Other good and bad traits:
Imperfections and quirks:
Dialogue style:
Relationships with others:

I like how this list is prioritized: the focus is on the character's personality and not on their appearance. Unless the character's appearance is pivotal to the plot, (for example, if the hero can't get a date with the girl of his dreams because he has was born with two noses instead of one) a wise author would downplay external appearances and would focus on internal attributes instead. Why?

Think of the people in your life who are close to your heart: do you love them because of their appearance? Most likely, that answer is no. Yes, at first you may have been attracted to them because of their smile, their hair, their six pack abs, (I've never seen any in real life. I think they're a myth.) but the reasons for truly loving a person are much deeper that what's on the surface.

Great characters should have some of the following traits:

Selflessness: your character should have interests other than their own pursuits and goals. Think of all the amazing conflicts that arise when a character has to choose between something they have always desired versus the love and acceptance of their family and friends. Selflessness is something your character might have to learn or strive to develop, but so long as your character doesn't start out as a narcissist, your readers will be glad to watch your character grow.

Compassion: in order for your hero or heroine to be well liked, they need to show that they have a heart. Even (or especially) in their relationship with the antagonist, your hero should feel deep empathy to towards those who betray or otherwise cause harm. That empathy might stem from a need for acceptance, a remembrance of the person the antagonist was before they turned to the dark side, or even a weakness the antagonist has which the hero can see in himself.

External calm (even while they might be in the midst of a raging inner storm): this is simple. No one likes to be around a hot-head. Yes, we all blow our tops from time to time, and if your character does so, it should be uncharacteristic and rare, and followed by feelings of guilt from the character. If your character snaps and yells at his friends, his family, or his high school math teacher, it should be a pivotal plot-point, where your reader will see that the character is falling apart at the seams.

Diligence: your character should be able to persevere though the toughest of challenges. They may have a moment where they simply can't take another step towards their fate, but they will eventually pull through. Before they reach that critical point, make certain you show that your character has was it takes to be a champion, even if they don't see it in themselves.

Vulnerability:  Unfortunately, we live in a world where people like to tear down those who are deemed too successful or too "perfect." If your characters come across as being exceptional in every way, your reader will not relate to them and will ultimately dislike them. Give your characters weaknesses: fears, insecurities, health problems, skeletons from their past. As a character works to overcome his or her weaknesses, your reader will feel a kinship with that character, since readers are working on overcoming their own weaknesses as well.

In reviewing my first novel, The Seasons of Mae, I am relieved to know I did something right: I gave my characters depth. However, the way in which I manifested each character's traits could have been improved.

Since your eyeballs are probably bleeding by now, and since characters are such an important topic that they warrant more than one post, I'll save my examples for how to give your characters more dimension next week. See ya then!