Monday, April 6, 2015

13 Week Novel—Week 6: Deeply Knowing Characters

For the novelist, the first draft is all about character and plot. Sure, setting, voice, dialogue, and all the other elements come into play because all of it is part of storytelling and without that we wouldn't be having much fun. But the reality is that if a writer pays too much attention to anything more than character and plot, he will slow down.
How well do you know your characters? How well do they know themselves? Image: Richard John Pozon
Personally, I love language, and writing with impact and beauty and emotion drives me to write to a large degree. I have to stop myself, though, from building too much about the time period or the tertiary characters too soon.

In the first draft, everything is subject to change. It's absurd to put too much time into deep writing of dialogue or description when the writer doesn't know the character yet. The author might trick herself into thinking she knows a character because writing about another time and place is exhilarating or the banter between the protagonist and antagonist entertain her and she is obsessed with working out the nuances in that conversation, but she's a fool to fall for it if she hasn't finished writing the draft. Laboring over a dialogue when she doesn't know those characters deeply can be heartbreakingnot to mention inefficient novellingwhen it becomes apparent that it is no longer relevant to the story.

The characters will affect the plot... at least in a good bookin any genre. So why not spend the first draft exploring the characters and plot to complicate and enrich both? Then there's really something to work with in the next draft.

Part of the reason writers find themselves fighting with their plot 200 pages into a book is they don't know their characters well enough. A writer might have thought she was writing a simple chronological coming-of-age story with one main protagonist and worked out a detailed life for that character, given her motivations and desires, found her oddities and humor, but may have overlooked something critical.

Everyone around the protagonist is a character, too... characters with motivations, desires, histories that are as rich as the protagonist's. They have to be for them to act with emotion and complicate her life. Sometimes we get so tired of having to figure everybody out. It's our job, though. Why is he doing this? Why is he not doing that? What will her reaction drive him to do next? Arrrgh!

I've been working through this myself with the whole creating the visual of the book projectwhich has been taking me an embarrassingly long time. (Developing notecards for someone else's book, no problem.)

So here's the thing, sometimes we think about everything we can to develop a history and characteristics for our characters. We explore what their parents were like, what their jobs are, what they look like and the things that they love and hate. We know their age and what their habits are, and we come up with quirks and ways of speaking and say to ourselves, Now I've got a character. We look for motivations, too. If we're savvy, we seek inner (emotional) motivation and conflict and we seek an external (physical plot) motivation and conflict. Then we say to ourselves, I know this character emotionally. And we do it with all our characters.

Then maybe it's time to take a nap. Or to find another writer to drink with so we can gloat about how well we know all our primary and secondary characters.

But maybe we don't know them all that well. Maybe we've just constructed something that seems like a character, but he's still somehow lacking something.

I get so frustrated when I read novels and a character is or acts a certain way, and then I get an explanation about why he is that way. For instance, he's angry and sarcastic, and he's been this way for a while. Then I get a story about his verbally abusive dad who kicked him out of the house when he was 14, and then I'm supposed to think, ahh! That's why he's angry and sarcastic! It's simplistic. If there is a clear explanation that can be summed up in one sentence, then it's too easy.

I'll tell you something about me. I'm in my mid-40s and I've never been married, nor do I have kids. Why? I can give you five different explanations. There is no one reason that I haven't gotten married; it's a combination of a lot of variables on many levels. Think about the things you do or don't do, the things you are. Can you point to one incident that created that part of you? Probably not. Because even if there was one life-changing event, it was up to you, and everything you brought to the table, to then be a certain way afterwards. Is everyone who has been kicked out of the house at 14 angry and sarcastic? It's not enough to make his complex.

We get so caught up in creating believable characters that we forget that most human beings are much more complex than a simple bit of logical pre-story. We're trying to build a believable character by creating consistencies in his past to support his anger and sarcasm.

But people aren't as consistent and logical as we believe ourselves to be. Or want to be.

Humans contradict themselves because they have ideals and philosophies that they want to live bybut emotions, gut reactions and physical reactions, and observations are not governed by the logic of those ideals and philosophies. Humans reason things out in sometimes a very short period after a flash of emotion so that they can respond in way that doen't appear hypocritical, but that contradiction still exists.

It's that contradiction that brings out character's complexity and our deep emotional knowledge of those characters.

Now, you might totally disagree with me, but just give these little exercises a try this week. I got them from Donald Maass, who wrote an amazing post titled "Infused" and now I think he, also, is amazing. See what these exercises bring up while you are working on your 2500 words.

Exercise 1:
What kind of person is your character? What is her prominent and defining characteristic? Write this down in one or two words. Then write down what you would say is the opposite of that characteristic.

For instance, my protagonist, Arlie, is a do-gooder. She's always trying to stand up for other people and questions herself about doing the right thing. So I'd say that the opposite of that is self-serving.

Next, write a scene in which your character exemplifies the opposite characteristic. In my case, I'd write a scene that has Arlie's mom getting out of the hospital and needing help, but she choosesshe actually reasons this outto leave home because she thinks her mom is milking the illness and being manipulative.

Last, do this again with another defining trait of that character. When you do this, you are developing a path to true inner conflict. The characters, in fact, are not living up to their own ideals.

Exercise 2:
What does your character want? What is her main motivation? Write this down in no more than 10 words. What is the opposite want of that one? So if you wrote down something like independence, you have it easywrite down dependence for your opposite. That's what I did.

Next, consider how your character could want both of these at the same time? What could make her want one and secretly yearn for the other? What could she do to try to make both those things come true? Do these desires clash? What happens if she gets one and not the other? Create a way for these desires to be incompatible so that if she gets one in this situation, she cannot get the other. Does she think she wants one more than the other, but wonders if she is wrong? This can pull her in separate directions, wanting different things that are mutually exclusive, and create a dilemma at critical points.

Exercise 3:
Think of something your protagonist would never do. Then write a scene in which she has to do exactly that. What causes her to do it? What are the effects?

I suppose that's enough for this week, because you still have that 2500 words to get through.

Let me know how it's going!

Coming in a little late? Find out about the 13 week challenge here. And see the first week's activities here.

Subscribe to get posts directly, or check back during the week of April 12th for the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still really considering if I would write a novel or not but these are helpful tips just in case.