Thursday, November 10, 2011

This guy's a character

By Jay Stringer

Character week, huh? I'll have me some of that.

When it comes to craft, many writers talk of character like some magic, alchemical thing. There's a point when this mysterious creature takes over in the writers head and leads the story. It sounds mystical and exciting, and I know I'm guilty of that kind of talk too. But sometimes I talk to people who are really intimidated by this. They'll sit and write, and wait for that moment when the character will appear fully formed in their head. When that moment doesn't come, they wonder if they're doing it wrong.

So let's take a step back and burst this myth. There's nothing magical about this process, and you're not doing it wrong. Well, you might be, I don't know. You might be doing it with crayon in the dark. Probably wrong. But then, you're also a visitor at DSD, which means you have taste, so that's another vote for not doing it wrong.

First things first, what is character? We all know this one, right? It's the person in your story. Well.....no. Well.....kinda. Well....yes. Well......shut up. Sure it's perfectly acceptable and standard these days to use the word in that sense, but it's something more.

If I type it into google I get this definition;


See, to my mind we're already making this easier here. Character isn't some magical person that will leap fully formed from your head and onto the page. Character is a trait, or a collection of traits, that are revealed about a person. They are shown in how your super spy reacts to adversity as he tries to defuse a nuclear bomb, or how your sexy forensic scientists deals with her crisis in faith (while defusing a nuclear bomb.)

Character isn't something that you need to have pinned down at the start of the story. It's something that is revealed at the story progresses. This is what story telling does. Plot reveals character. We know virtually nothing about Indiana Jones at the start of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, except that he needs to shave and he's wearing the fuck out of that leather jacket. But after 115 minutes of seeing him get beaten down, shot, bruised and bloodied, but still finding a way to climb back up, we know everything we need to about this guy's character.

So, don't sweat it. There is no secret formula that you're not aware of. There's no magic circle of writers who are forbidden from sharing their secrets (though that would explain the hooded man stood behind me as I type this, reaching for his swor......brb.)

Where was I?

Right, so. Plot and character go hand in hand. More than that, plot and character are the same thing, if you boil it down and do it right. There are beats in the plot that will face your spy/sexy scientist/monkey with a choice, and the way they react to that choice tells us a little more about who they are.

See those times when writers talk about the character taking over? That's what that is. It's that point when, partway through a first draft, we get a handle on how our spy/sexy scientist/monkey/superhero has been responding to choices, and we can take educated guesses on how they will respond to the ones that are yet to come. And then, being people who are revealing their character page by page, they go and surprise us. They make a different choice. The reader will be shocked, but that's nothing compared to how the writer feels.

Creating Characters (and see, now I'm playing fast and loose with the rules, because I've switched back to the other usage of the word) is pretty simple. In fact, my key to handling this bit is the same as my key to all writing -which probably blows my whole month's worth of useful comments right here- is ignore the big things. You build a plot one beat at a time. You build a character one piece at a time. You write the novel one page at a time. If you ever stop to think of the big things, you're just giving your brain an excuse to freeze up.

Think of your first chapter as an outline for a short story. For that, you only need a few aspects of character, and a few basic details of their identity. Start telling your story. At the end of the first chapter -the end of the short story- face your character with some choice that they were not expecting. Are they going to get in that car? Are they going to pick up the phone? Are they going to hide that dead body or call the cops? Do they like coffee with cream? From that reaction, you reveal your first layer of character, then you build from there.

Plot informs character and character informs plot. If I start a murder mystery with a guy who does the wrong thing when he finds a dead body, thats cool, but why does he do the wrong thing? I'm not a fan of "just because." I need a reason why my guy won't simply pick up the phone and call the cops, as most of us would. So then I realise, well, he's got a reason to run away from the cops. But what would that be? What reason would be so ingrained in a person that even knowing that they are innocent is still not enough for them to override their fear and call the cops? Well, hey, what if he was an ethnic minority. What if the reason it was ingrained in him was generations of alienation and rivalry? Bingo. And hey, this new found aspect of his character will have an impact on every decision he makes for the rest of the book. Bingo bingo. And now he has opinions, he has a voice, he has a family history and he's not afraid to tell me about them. And, hey, try making him a woman. Or a child. Or an alien.

As I said last week, I'm going to try and hold myself to giving some practical tips each week. last weeks list works for both plot and character, since they're the same thing. But here's a few simple things you can do, and it involves a little more work that last week.

-What single event or trait makes your character different to everyone else?
-What single thing does your character see in him/herself that others don't?
-What single thing does everyone else see in your character, that he/she doesn't?
-What is the most honest thing your character has ever done?
-What is the least honest thing your character has ever done?
-For each one, write a paragraph of dialogue, of your character answering the questions.
-Then think of the simplest way to show each one in a story.

Add what you've gotten this week to what you came up with last week, and if you've not gotten a story by now, you're really not trying.






1 comment:

Mari Adkins said...

:sputters: but but ... i *like* writing in (purple) crayon on (black) construction paper in the darkest dark of the darkest night ...