Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

John McFetridge

For me, it all starts with the characters. The story comes later. If the characters are interesting enough, I can follow them anywhere. If they just seem to be there to advance the plot, I lose interest. Just my taste, and it doesn’t seem to be the most popular approach these days.

Author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), recently said that Dan Brown’s characters are, “completely flat and two-dimensional... His basic ignorance about the way people behave is astonishing, talking in utterly implausible ways to one another.”

John Grisham defends Brown (not that he needs defending, he seems to be doing all right on his own) and says of his own writing, “If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people's character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.”

Now, the characters in my books may not be all that complex but I try to make them plausible. Sometimes that works against me. In a review in the National Post last weekend, Philip Marchand said of my new novel, Swap, “... one gets tired of hearing members of the human race routinely classified as either 'asshole' or 'bitch,' depending on gender. Such language is always a blunt instrument, and its use, through direct or indirect discourse, diminishes the characters — they cannot rise above the linguistic limitations imposed upon them.”

So here’s the dilemma. I wanted to create fully developed characters that behave – and talk – in ways the reader would find plausible. If this means they can’t “rise above the linguistic limitation,” I figure so be it. Marchand also says, “It is certainly hard to convey delicate emotions through this language. At one point Sunitha relates a painful childhood memory to Get. His response? 'She liked the way he made fun of it and still understood that it messed her up,' McFetridge writes. 'She got the feeling he’d never call her a psycho bitch and flip out on her.' That’s good — though surely it should be a minimal requirement for a gentleman engaged in an affair of the heart not to flip out and call his beloved a psycho bitch for sharing her feelings.”

My wife read the last part out loud with an English accent in her best Jane Austen voice – pretty funny.

And finally, Marchand is right when he says, “That’s life in the fast lane, with tough guys and tougher women, who can be pretty boring, when you come right down to it.” It’s that whole banality of evil thing.

So, I guess there’s a balance between creating characters as “real” as you can and still making them, well, not boring.

I like to know a lot about the characters in my books. I look up the most popular baby names from the year they were born, I like to know what year they graduated from high school (or dropped out) and what were the popular songs and movies and TV shows that year. Margaret Atwood said, “You wouldn’t want your character to have the wrong horoscope any more than you would want them to have the wrong name.”

And most importantly every character has to want something. They each have to have their own agenda.

Some of them may even get what they want.

What do you think? How fleshed out should every character be?


Anonymous said...

I do have to call BS on the National Post reviewer. It's the same mentality that goes with "You shouldn't use swear words in dialog because it sounds ignorant."

The fact is people do behave that way, and it's not the writer's job to sugarcoat it.

As far as negative reviews go, that was a badly written one for that point alone.

Steve Weddle said...

I know a number of writers who do "character sketches" with each book they write.

What happens to me is that I tend to write the background into the story. Many times that gets cut out early in the revision process and little pieces here and there remain, pieces that provide even more insight that a bulky hunk of background from page 72-74.

Either way, knowing your characters is really the only way you know their motivations, the WHY of what they do. Those plotty books use cardboard characters because the plot moves the book along. The character's motivation is "the bomb will go off and blow up the whole entire world."

Having a character motivated by the need to redeem himself for a wasted life is something else entirely.

Dana King said...

I have the story idea first, but how it plays out is often determined by the personalities of the primary characters, who grow as I get deeper into the book. I've found I can't plot by the seat of my pants, but I can't pre-ordain too much of my characters' personalities, either, as I find myself thinking of them differently as the story moves along. Even the primary character in the WIP isn't nearly as nice a guy as I first envisioned him.

Secondary characters are fleshed out enough to make them interesting. I read a book a few weeks ago that spent four pages describing the life and thoughts of a character who didn't actually so five pages worth of stuff in the entire book.

I don't feel the need to tell more about any character than the reader needs to know. I know more about him, but the rest of hsi backstory often falls into the dreaded "parts people tend to skip" purgatory, and gets cut.

Word verification = colopop, which is a sweet on a stick, given if you behave during a rectal exam.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In trying to write a novel (again) I need to constantly go back and add nuance and depth to the characters as I discover more about them through their actions. So the book expands in the beginning and middle more than at the end.

Jay Stringer said...

i like to play around with dialogue until i know who the characters are, then see what they want the plot to be.