Lesson Three: What A Character!

So I was reading a few writing craft books this week and researching the art of characterization. Stephen King wrote that while we may read books for plot, we remember books for characters. The more I thought about that statement, the more I realized how right he is. We may not remember many details about the plot of GONE WITH THE WIND, but we certainly remember Scarlett O’Hara!

Consider J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series. Many lots of twists and turns occur in the plot line, and reading the books is exciting and even addictive because of the drama and mystery and conflict in the plot. When we are all done reading, though, the characters are what we remember and most want to talk about. We identify with Harry’s “outsider-ness” and his feelings of responsibility to save the world. We also see that Harry has a rather over-sized ego. This is the flip side to that sense of responsibility, and it gets him in trouble . . . with large snakes and haughty professors and representatives from the Ministry.

And don’t we love Harry as much for that flaw as we do for his gifts?

Therein lies the lesson. Our goal is to create characters as real and honest as the people around us–perhaps the more flawed and imperfect the better. Stephen King may not write the most “literary” stories in the world, but he does one thing better than almost any writer alive. He brings characters to life.

When I asked my teen writing group to mention a character that stands out for them, the first answer was “Jack from THE SHINING.” This is not surprising, since Jack is a deeply flawed character whose inner self comes roaring out–literally–under the influence of an evil spirit trapped in a spooky, empty resort hotel. I’m not even sure that this character is one of King’s best, but even at his less-than-best King is able to create a character whose many facets render him believable, someone we might meet out in our daily lives (and in this case, probably wish we hadn’t).

The key is to create people who are multidimensional rather than two-dimensional “cardboard cutouts.” In other words, beware of stereotypes.

We’ve all read books filled with stereotypical characters:the Brainy Geek, the snotty Queen Bee, the Cheerful Sidekick, the Brave Soldier, the Good Mother, and of course the Evil Stepmother. These kinds of flat characters often make for very boring reads. Fairy tales are full of flat characters. These characters are not intended to be anything but a stand-in for an IDEA–the idea of a “good mother,” the idea of a “innocent princess.” The Princes are even worse. We barely even have a clue what they look like. They are stand-ins for “perfect, rich manly specimen.” Nothing wrong with this if your are intending to write a fairy tale. In fact, it might be fun to play around with the genre. But even romance novels, often described as “fairy tales” have characters with many more dimensions than Grimm.

However, today we are talking about creating the kind of characters that readers would remember, so how do we take a flat character and bring him or her to life?

1. Give the characters flaws. We all have flaws, even the best of us. A “goody-two-shoes” character will only be truly interesting if we see her picking her nose or sabotaging her best friend or getting caught in a monstrous lie and making a fool of herself. A character who really has no flaws is boring. Don’t even go there. Create nice people, of course, but at least give them a tendency to eat too much chocolate or think a little too highly of themselves.

2. Give the characters gifts. Just as we give “good” characters flaws, we also give “bad” characters gifts. All characters have something they are good at. An evil villain (the Evil Villain, there’s another stereotype!) may be be very gifted with organization skills, for instance. Give us something to admire about the guy–even if we reluctantly admire him. Let’s take J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort. Hard to imagine a more evil character, right? But Rowling gives him substance (in more ways than one) by giving him a flaw in the first book that makes us feel a little bit of compassion for him–he is a scrawny little beast unable to move on his own, surviving as a kind of parasite on a poor dupe of a professor at Hogwarts. Later we find out he never fit in with his family. He never fit in with his society. He never really fit in at school. So his flaws give him some humanity, even if he is truly evil. At the same time, he is gifted with attributes we can’t help but admire: brilliant intelligence, cunning, determination, power. If Rowling had simply made him all-powerful, he would be a flat, boring character. Instead, he is a worthy and formidable opponent for Harry Potter to defeat. MUCH more interesting!

In creating your well-rounded characters, ask yourself some questions. What does she do in her spare time? What is she passionate about? Who does she love? What does she fear most? What is her most irritating habit? Who are her friends? Who are her enemies? What does she want? What are her goals? What would she do to get what she wants? What wouldn’t she do?

Sometimes using a character worksheet can help you think about your characters. They are available on the internet. I found one at http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/jun98/lazy2.htm If you search around the internet, you will probably find many more.

3. Once you know more about your character, SHOW who they are rather than telling. This bring us back to narrative vs. scene. Sometimes you will use narrative to tell the reader about your character, but showing them in action makes for much more vivid writing . . . and reading. Dialogue is a great tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. People “say” so much about themselves just by opening their mouths. Someone who was brought up in a blue-color neighborhood by uneducated parents is likely to speak very differently from someone who was brought up in an upper middle-class neighborhood by college-educated professionals. One way of speaking is not inherently BETTER than the other, but keep in mind where your character grew up, the kinds of people he or she would have been exposed to, the grammatical idiosyncrasies which would pop up in everyday conversation with this person. Imagine that character having a conversation with another character. Report what you hear.

Dialogue can be a difficult part of the writing craft. You will get better at it if you work at listening to conversation, noticing how people talk, the rhythm of conversation. This is different from recording a conversation word-for-word. Real life dialogue is full of starts and stops and “ums” and “ah” and repetition and going back and forward and back again and awkward sentences and hand gestures that help convey the speaker’s meaning. When writing dialogue, the author has to smooth that all out…while remaining honest to the character’s intention.

Become an eavesdropper. I know that sounds creepy, but it is hard to listen to HOW people are talking sometimes while you are actually engaged in the conversation. It’s easier to learn by listening to other people deep in discussion. Or not so deep. Banter is another way people–and characters–reveal their true selves. Some people joke in silly ways. Others joke in a biting, sarcastic manner, etc.

Listen to a conversation. Later, get out your notebook and try to recreate the conversation the way you heard it. That is good practice.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. You will get better at dialogue if you simply listen and practice.

4. Characters are like people–they are all stars in their own personal reality t.v. shows. Characters, like us, all have a running commentary going on in their heads all the time they are awake. Try to get inside a character’s head. Notice what he is noticing. Write down what he is thinking. Taken to the extreme, this kind of writing can create an entire story…or novel. It is called stream of consciousness writing. Even if you don’t write your entire story using stream of consciousness, using the technique in scenes spread throughout the narrative give the reader inside information about the character and makes for a deeper, more personal reading experience. Here are examples of “telling” from outside the character and “showing” from inside the character’s head:

Telling from outside the character:

Lori felt ugly and depressed when she woke up Friday morning. She put on a pair of old sweatpants and a plain tank top, and she pulled her hair into a ponytail instead of bothering with the curling iron. For breakfast, she settled on a piece of whole-grain toast with butter. She suspected the sugary toaster pastries she’s been eating lately had caused pimples to erupt on her chin overnight. She sighed and bit into her toast. She really hated her life.

Here we are told that Lori feels ugly and depressed. We take the author’s word for it. We do see the old sweatpants, but not in great detail. We are told she hates her life. There’s alot of telling going on. So, let’s get inside Lori’s head and see what is going on in there:

Lori caught a glimpse of herself in her bedroom mirror. Ugh! Where had those zits come from? They looked like a constellation of red stars on her chin, raw and ugly. How could she go to school with those things? Everyone, even her friends, would notice and would make comments in the hallway between classes. Why did they feel it so necessary to point out all her flaws? It’s not as if she didn’t already know her skin was awful and her butt a little too wide. She picked at her chin while staring into the jumbled contents of her closet, looking for fashion inspiration.

Nothing. Not a stinking thing to wear to school today. It was Friday and all the cool girls would be wearing their silly puffy skirts and flip-flops. It was like they planned their wardrobes to match or something. She wouldn’t know. She was such a loser. Sighing, she reached into the closet and pulled out her ratty, old pair of sweatpants and a plain tank top. Let them talk about her, she thought as she pulled her plain brown hair into a messy ponytail. What did she care?

Slumping downstairs to the kitchen, she reached for the box of toaster pastries. Wait. Maybe the sugar was making her face break out. It would have to be plain whole-grain toast for a few days. Her life sucked. Totally.

Okay, so this isn’t Pulitzer Prize-winning writing, but we are firmly planted inside Lori’s head. We hear her thoughts, we feel her depression without being told she is depressed. It is apparent–in the way she thinks, in the way she dresses, in the way she sighs and picks at her pimples.

Try this technique when you are working on your story. You might be surprised to see the world from your character’s point of view.

5. Take your time. “Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them,” says Ann Lamott in her writing craft book, BIRD BY BIRD. No matter how much preparation, how many character worksheets you fill out, it will take time for you to get to know your characters. They will change and grow as you write. You will gain insights about them you never imagined. Their back-stories–events that happened prior to the beginning of the story you are writing–will come to you. You can then chose to put some of that back-story into your piece or not, depending on the effects you are trying to create. You may figure out something about your character well into the story and have to go back and make changes to the beginning. It’s all good. It’s all part of the process.

Stories are about people struggling with issues and events and ideas just as real people do. Show us who they are. Let us hear their voices. Let us see both their gifts and their flaws and let us decide for ourselves if we like them or not. When characters act and react to events in the story, they do so out of their history, their temperament, their goals and desires, and their fears. Their actions create the plot. Next week, we’ll explore the idea of plot, but for now, work on those characters. They are the life of the party!

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