Friday, May 23, 2014

I Am the Hero of My Own Story, Right?

Got a good plot?  Done.

Got an even better story?  Done.

Got a cast of great characters?  Um, well ...

We have all been there.  Sometimes a character comes together easily, with virtually no effort at all.  But, most of the time, it is difficult.*  The characters come out feeling shallow and bland.  You can see the jaggies where you cut their cardboard outline.

There are a whole host of tools and techniques out there meant to help writers craft better characters.  They are generally well-intended but they often focus just on character outlines.  These involve answering lots of questions.  They sound a lot like a dating website: What do you do for work?  What are your dreams?  Where’d you go to school?  How tall are you?  What’s your favorite thing to do?  Favorite movie?  Favorite food?

These questions and their answers are pretty much useless in building a great character.

After all, does liking beaches at sunset determine someone’s personality?  Does eye color actually influence temperament?  And liking anchovies on pizza means what, exactly?  None of this has anything to do with character.  Yet, this is how many clinics on character creation often go.

Stories are jumbles of meaningless details without the glue of good characters.  Similarly, characters are jumbles of meaningless details without the glue of great souls.  You, the creator, have to breathe life into your people.  Yes, this is as difficult as it sounds.**  I have found one good way to achieve this, though.

It is essentially a story prompt.  Take the character and think about their actual personality, not their eHarmony profile.  Then write a scene in first person where the character reacts to a situation.  Nothing action-packed or plot heavy.  Something simple.  A schoolyard scene.  A family reunion.  A job interview.  A red-eye flight.

Don’t just walk them through the scenario.  Elaborate on their thoughts.  Go way, way farther into their thoughts than any good story would.  Every person they meet, detail their internal reactions.  Their emotions.  Their attitudes.  Their weaknesses.  Their sensibilities.  Their vulnerabilities.  Their aspirations.  These things are important.  They are the blocks that build a great character.  Take someone with a perfectly boring profile.  Fill their thoughts with sarcastic commentary on everyone they meet and suddenly that person is quite interesting.

Once you've entered their mind (sorry, that came out weird), your characters will become more unique, more real and far more tangible.  You will cease to think of them as some regimented archetype.  They have real motivations, emotions, vulnerabilities and aspirations.  They become the hero of their own story.  Once you have achieved this, you can set aside the writing prompt.  It has served its purpose.

Next time, we'll discuss how we see ourselves as writers, in: Why Soooo Serious?

*  Character creation.  Very.  Hard.  Well, for most of us.  Some authors create great characters with such ease, it is morally justifiable to hate them.  I think.
**  Unless, again, it isn't.  In which case, I hate you.

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