Friday, February 13, 2009

Dear Charlie:

My beloved sister is doing a workshop on characters and character building over at her blog, and she's asked for her readers to opine on what makes characters memorable and great for them or, for authors, how they build their characters. Whether reader or writer (or viewer), what makes Han Solo speak to you? Why will you never forget James T. Kirk shouting "Khhhhaaaaaaannnn!" What makes you go back and read IT over and over again?

Or, on the other hand, why don't you remember the names of the slaughtered teenagers in any of the Jason movies? Why can't you remember which pitiful humans were able to go from primitives to fighter pilots in the agonizingly bad Battlefield Earth? Why do so many romance novel heroines sound the same and do the same dumb things?

What makes a good character? A character that walks and talks and practically dances off the page or the screen?

Well, since I don't have any idea, I'll just blather about it for a while by telling you what works for me as reader/viewer first, then as a writer. I'm sure a point will emerge.

Okay, semi-sure.

For me, whether or not I'll like a character is pretty much set in either the first ten minutes of a movie or the first ten pages of a book. On rare occasions, I have been pleasantly surprised by a lame character suddenly becoming fascinating half-way through, but it's pretty rare. Usually, how a character starts is how they end, even if they "change" or "grow" through the course of the story. An asshole in the first chapter will probably still be an asshole at the end.

Unless, of course, the insipid heroine has turned him into a flower-bearing wuss. Which is worse.

So, why do I like or dislike a character? That's tricky. My first instinct is to say that I like intelligent, witty characters, usually with a secret.

But that's not entirely true. Forrest Gump was not an intelligent man. Nor was he particularly witty -- at least, not on purpose. Nor did he have a secret. That hasn't stopped me from popping that flick in probably once a year or so, just to remember how he says "That's Loo-ten-nit Dan" as he comes out of the TV studio.

So I like the goofs, right? Not so. As much as I like Cuba Gooding, Jr., I was only mildly interested in Radio, and that only because it was football.

Hm. Maybe movie characters are too influenced by the actor playing them (though I just refuted that point by saying I didn't like a Cuba character, heh). I'll stick with book characters, then.

Young, vigorious, witty, intelligent people in books. That's what I like. Except for Ralph Roberts in Insomnia. He's like 70, and while he's got yards of common sense, he says himself that he's not the most intelligent guy on the block. Hm. Fairly vigorous, though.

Okay, so...maybe I like...likeable characters. That's the ticket.

Except for Montresor in The Cask of Amontillado. He's not really a likeable guy. Eaten up by vengeance, that one.

Or Miss Emily in A Rose for Emily. She's little more than a spoiled, deluded bitch, really. Crazy as an outhouse rat (a particularly apropos comparison, considering the smell from her house).

Hm. So...likeable isn't exactly a requirement, either.

See what I mean about this being tricky? It's hard to pinpoint exactly what about a character does or doesn't work for me. I guess it boils down to a character being fully-fleshed with consistent details. Useful details, not just meaningless filler. And at least a modicum of intelligence, even if it isn't in the universally accepted measure.

So, what makes a character fully fleshed? A thorough description of the character's appearance? Inventory of his clothing and favorite room? A listing of her reading preferences and favorite movies and songs? An ad nauseum essay about his past life?

Not so. In fact, a good author can do a better job of fleshing out a character in a few telling conversation exchanges than a bad author can in a page-long paragraph about the character staring at herself in the mirror and pondering her guinea-gold hair and porceline complexion.

Maybe that's what really sells a character for me -- what they have to say. I've read several books where the characters didn't seem really alive until they spoke. At that point, they nearly leapt from the page. Good dialogue can do wonders.

But it's not just what they say. It's also what they think. A character's thoughts, those private things that we readers get but the other characters can only guess at, flesh a character out more than anything else, I guess.

Telling me that a character has fiery red hair and flashing green eyes is okay, but standing back and watching inside her mind as she tries to rein in her simmering temper while a suitor blathers on about how pretty a wife and mother she'll make, though, deep down inside, she really wants to be a painter or an archeologist or the first woman on the planet Venus shows me everything I need to know about her. Add in her stroking the paring knife she always keeps hidden in her bustle, and it's just icing on the character cake.

Of course, how they talk and what they think has to be logical. Consistent. A character that, in chapter one, is a coward inside and out is fine, but if he -- for whatever reason -- puts himself between an anonymous bully and an anonymous stranger without any real reason for it but plot movement, I don't buy it. Something would have to work him up to it. Maybe he knew the bully. Maybe he knew the "stranger". Maybe he decided that a lifetime of wussitude was enough and wanted to try to turn his life in another direction.

But he can't just do it because he needs to be injured in the next scene or because the plot demands that the stranger give him a big "my hero" kiss or whatever.

Does that make sense? The character can be a louse and still be a good character, so long as he is who he is. So long as he's consistent. So long as he's fully-fleshed.

The hardest part of all of this, though, is trying to translate what works for me as a reader or a viewer into what I hope works for me as a writer. Because that's where all of this leads. How do I create a Montresor or a Miss Emily? How do I create a Ralph Roberts? A Captain Kirk? A Han Solo?

The truth is, I'm not sure I have yet. Lots of my characters seem to walk and talk to me, but do they dance for anyone else? I dunno.

Gabe and Jack and Mike seem to do okay with the few people I've let read about them. I get lots of good feedback on the relationship between the sisters, Gabe and Mike, and Jack gets enough oohs and aahs that I don't worry too much about him. I hope that means that they're fully fleshed.

But I don't know.

All I can do is remember what seems to work for me: dialogue and details. Characters that talk until they walk, and then walk like they talk. Consistency.

So what do I do to keep track of those details to ensure consistency?

Some people use character sheets. These have pluses and minuses. Sometimes, they're a little too detailed and become stifling, but they do make sure that you don't accidentally call your blue-eyed heroine the hero's brown-eyed girl.

My sister uses color themes and a static trait. These work wonders for her, because they weave themselves into the fabric of the story and ensure consistency by their sheer brilliance. The static trait, especially, makes for instant verisimilitude because it usually ends up effecting the plot somehow. Like John Constantine lighting up a smoke after every paranormal encounter until he ends up with the lung cancer that puts him in line for his destiny, a static trait can be the basis for an entire story.

She also chooses an actor or actress to represent her character. She's even been known to "interview" the actor until they step into character and inhabit that persona. These interviews are freakishly effective. And usually funny as hell.

Other people use "emotional toolboxes". Some use tarot cards. The zodiac. Knowledge of psychology and philosophy. All work extremely well, so long as they work for you.

What works for me, you ask?

Well, the truth is that I haven't tried everything yet. I don't have a tried-and-true strategy. Each story demands something different from me, and probably will until I pick a steady genre. Yeah. I tend to genre-jump.

For instance, for the rewrite of my Survival Trilogy, I used character sheets. Each sheet helped me define the earlier characters' fears and weaknesses, their strengths, how they relate to each other. It gave me a much clearer picture of where they needed to go in the story and thus made the story more compelling. It created conflict where I'd only blundered around before. Very handy.

But for Gigolo, I just had a picture in my mind of the heroine (Annie from the first Halloween movie, if you're curious) and built her personality and motivations on as hard a past as I could think of without torture and child molestation ('cause that's not how I roll...yet). She grew up thinking of herself as a burden, and thus she refused to be a burden as an adult. The conflict is nearly self-evident, and I think it flows pretty well through the story because of her character.

Charles Stone grew out of a loose fanfiction that quickly outgrew its source material and had to take a new direction, mostly because the character solidified into someone else and became consistent there. Funny how that happens. I didn't do a lot of character work on him because he was supposed to be someone else, someone pre-existing, but when he refused to act on the situation like the existing character would, a whole new story opened up with him at the helm. I definitely liked where it went, and so I was off to the races with him. He made himself an original character.

Lady Anne was herself from the moment she entered my mind. She's spoiled but neglected. Angry but afraid. Hateful but pitiful. Physically weak but mentally, oh, so strong. Her story is inspired by the disagreeable but strangely likeable characters in The Secret Garden, but in idea only. I wanted a disagreeable character that is strangely likeable, and in walked Lady Anne. I don't have to keep track of her character traits. She's just Lady Anne.

Maggie -- my sole foray into young adult fiction -- is a tomboy, so she's pretty much my own experience talking. Oh, she has entirely different circumstances, but she grew up running with the boys instead of the girls. Again, I don't really need any help keeping her consistent. I see her story like a movie in my head, and it's more like taking dictation than writing. She needs a gimmick, though, which is why she's currently on hiatus. If it were regular adult fiction, I know where I'd go, but since it's young adult, I gotta figure it out a little more before proceeding.

Kazlénne, on the other hand, is directly from a character sheet. A Dungeons & Dragons character sheet, which is the best kind. She was my favorite character from my flaming D&D days back in college. I remember her fondly, and thus, I've brought her forward into Story. Her story may not be the Story of My Heart, but she's definitely the Character of My Heart.

And then, there's The Diplomat. He's not the "main" character of his story, but he's my favorite of the three leads. He's based on just about every kick-ass assassin story I've ever read or seen. Makes him hard to keep consistent, but somehow, I manage. He's fun. Not necessarily likeable, but I hope he's at least memorable.

So yeah, I don't really have a consistent strategy. Doesn't mean I'll stop looking for one, though. I have a feeling that, if I ever find one, I'll spend a lot less time in revision hell. Heh.

And that, friends and neighbors, is all a writer can ask for.


At 9:43 PM, Blogger Joely Sue Burkhart said...

I can't wait to get to know the Diplomat! He seems so interesting. Your characters are always so much fun - they have great dialogue and witty comebacks I can only dream of.

At 12:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The diplomat"- Hell, I love his name alone. Kick-ass indeed. *g* Really entertainning post here, Gutterball.

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you do prove a point, though I don't know if it's the one you're trying for: there is no rule about how to make a good character - or what makes a good, character, either. We can agree on basics, I'm sure, but someone who dances for you may be mediocre for me, and I think this is largely to do with the readers experience, their involvement in the story, which is, of course, subjective. So if we can't decide on what makes a character work, how could we ever agree on how to make them? :)

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Bethanie said...

Two things you said, Molly, really nail it for me: 1) the character's thoughts (and what they say too) and 2) consistency. I really love being inside a character's head (I have a whole post about this tomorrow) and that's what really makes characters - and us, for that matter - unique. The consistency thing is really huge for me too, which I think comes, in recent years anyway, from being an editor. I spend all day looking for things that are inconsistent and I guess that makes me really intolerent of it!


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