The adventures of a struggling New York writer who'd rather be in medieval Spain. Find me at www.lisajyarde.com
Monday, June 20, 2011
Making the Connections - Characterization
I just completed tweaking the novella that I'm writing under a pen name, and sent it off to an editor in the hopes that a small publisher will accept it. My heroine’s not a pirate, but she sure curses like one. Writing a contemporary has been so freeing! I explained to one of my best writing buds, as much as I love historical fiction and will continue in that genre, I just wanted to write freely in this instance. To put aside a typical year's worth of research into the past and just focus on the writing instead. The approach didn't necessarily make my task any easier. I still had to look up pop culture way back in the 1990's, from music, movies and fashion trends to the dynamics of highway traffic accidents and plane crashes. Did I mention this novella wouldn’t have a happy conclusion? So sad.
The one aspect that is universal to anything I write is how much time I spend crafting characters. It took me several years to understand the concept of show vs. tell, especially when it comes to characterization. It's deeper than, "Don't tell us your protagonist, Jane Doe is a divorcee who's getting older. Show us." It's more than Jane's rheumy eyes, her gnarled hands cramping and shaking as she gropes for the pill bottle on the nightstand, while she lies alone at night in her bed. It's about getting a reader to make a deep connection with Jane, to care about what happens to her.
How many times have you read a book, where you just couldn't connect with the main character? Whether he or she was too perfect, too pathetic, something about this character just felt unreal. I’ll bet you may not remember the entire plot of some of your favorite novels, but something about the story stood out. Typically, that something is a character. How many of you writers have slaved over getting the characteristics of your protagonists and villains just right? Do you ever ask yourself why you go to the trouble? For the same reason that I do - to make your characters true to life, as flesh and blood as you are, with faults and foibles to spare. No protagonist should be too perfect. If he or she can always save the day and do just the right thing without any consequences, I have to ask, where’s the conflict? Why should I stay tuned to find out if Mr. Perfect Hero really will get the vaccine from the villain’s HQ in time to save the dying villagers? I already know he’s going to do it, if the writer has painted him as someone who can do no wrong. We're not perfect. Why should our characters be?
I've heard of lots of different approaches to crafting characters. One method I've come to rely on is a character sketch. First, I summarize a character in one or two lines, to define their basic personality. Then I go beyond the physical descriptions of the characters (so that black hair doesn't suddenly turn brown with highlights; I've done that before!), to refine their personalities. I keep a table in Access with answers to questions like, “Most painful childhood memory?” or “Does he or she like children? Why or why not?” and, most important in my mind, “How does he or she deal with change?” Change is a vital aspect to building up a strong character, showing how a person grows (or not) by altering their circumstances.
Once I have answered the questions, it’s easier to think about what will happen scene by scene, and how my characters will deal with the events that transpire. I look to see how much havoc I can wreak in my characters’ lives, and ways in which they can, or perhaps can’t, work themselves out of trouble. Sometimes they just don’t make it. I did mention there’s no HEA in that novella, right? Don’t crucify me by calling it a love story gone wrong! I warned you.
With Edric, my hero in On Falcon’s Wings, he’s best summed up as a Saxon lord’s son, living in the shadow of everyone else’s expectations, until a forbidden love affair challenges him to find his own happiness. The first third of the book shows Edric under his father’s thumb, then under the sway of his lord, Harold Godwinson. It’s only in the latter third of the book that Edric comes into his own, and fights for his family and future at the Battle of Hastings. Fatima, my heroine in Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy is devoted to her family. Bitter rivalries among its members force her to make the wrong choices, for all the right reasons. She remains one of my favorite protagonists and I loved writing about her, because she is so incredibly flawed. She loves her family to the point where she will do anything, even murder innocents, to protect them. Part of creating memorable characters is showing them at their best and worst.
Tell me about some of your favorite characters. Why did they resonate with you? Also, if you’re a writer, how do you create a memorable character?