Sunday, July 11, 2010

Questions of Character

As I write this it's a little after 11pm Saturday night and I'm downtown Ann Arbor killing time before heading over to see a midnight showing of TAXI DRIVER, one of my favorite movies. It's odd, when I was single and lived down here I never made it to any of these midnight movies, but now, married and living on the outskirts here I am. I'm also at the Starbucks where I used to go when I absolutely needed to finish something because it used to be the only joint in town without free wireless access. Alas, it's finally succumbed.

So what am I working on? Well I'm glad you asked. I'm working on revisions for MURDER BOY of course...sort of. While I'm not generating any new prose, per say, I'm generating many pages about the characters in the novel. Because, you see, while I know the story, and thought I knew the characters, I do not know what really makes them tick. I recently got the manuscript back from an agent who was nice enough to send me about 2 pages of what was wrong with it. For some that might be heartbreaking, for me it was educational. What the letter basically boiled down to though was you characters, who we don't really get to know, go around doing things that don't seem to mean anything to them.

This was a bit of a shock to me because one common in all of the other agent letters I've received for other novels was that I had a knack for creating cool characters. But those were all first person novels, which is my natural storytelling voice, and lends itself better to fully developing a character. So of course I went back and tried writing MURDER BOY in first person and failed miserably. This is a story that needs to be told in third person and it needs to be told in multiple viewpoints. This agent did point to a couple of characters she thought were interesting, and I agreed. So instead of the 10 or so characters I tried to cram into the previous drafts, I want to focus just on a core of 4-5. So I went back and started from scratch. The first 15 pages came easy, they were about my main character, I already know what makes him tick, he's me, mostly. But then I switched to the viewpoint of the antagonist and froze up.

While this guy had some neat character quirks and I knew what his goals and motivations were story-wise, I had no idea what made him tick. I had no idea how he would react in the various scenarios he's thrust into over the course of the novel. I needed to know where he came from. What made him who he was and, most importantly, what kind of cell phone he used. Yes, believe it or not, that's the piece of information I've struggled most over regarding my antagonist, his choice of cell phone. But as I ran the various options through my head I realized a person's choice of cell phone can say HUGE things about that person as a character. Are they contract or buy-the-minute sorts? Basic phone or all the bells and whistles. BlackBerry, iPhone, or Droid. I thought more about this than I ever could have imagined, but by the end of it I had some very keen insights into this character. And, more importantly, I had a way into his opening scene. Now, instead of a cliched scene of a bounty hunter spying on someone, I open with him at one of those high pressure cell phone kiosks trying to decide what sort of cell phone he's going to buy.

SO tell me, folks, as a writer, how do you make your characters tick? How much do you need to know about them before you start writing? And for the readers, how much do you like to see about a character on the page? If an author posts interviews and character studies and such on their website do you like to know back story and all of that or do you only care about what's happening to them immediately in the story?


pattinase (abbott) said...

The longer it sits, the better I know then but I am not always patient.

Rusty James said...

Although I know that character is story, I have this terrible habit of beating-out my first act before going back to work on character sheets.

I'd love to read how other writers tackle their characters - pun intended.

Stacey Cochran said...

Hey, Bryon, I'm a huge fan of your tenacity and progress. You're definitely on the right track, and you're going to be huge one day very soon I think.

I start with a character bible. Drop me an email if you'd like a copy of the 2-page questionnaire I use. Another key thing is that I never write a character that isn't based at least somewhat on someone I know. Characters are often composites of people, but there should be some dominant emotion associated with the character.

And above all else, you should sympathize with the character and have compassion for him/her. If the character is someone who is in a lot of emotional pain, and your heart goes out to him then you've got something.

John McFetridge said...

I like to know what year the character graduated high school and what music they listened to then, what movies were out and what TV shows were popular. Maybe some news events, too.

I like to have a pretty good idea of how they came to be where they are, and like Stacey says, I use traits of people I know.

Graham Powell said...

I guess I'm a rebel, but I'm not a big believer in backstory. I don't really care what happened to my characters in the past (unless it figures in the plot). I mean, I have friends who I know very well, and can guess what they'd do or say in any situation, but I don't know much about their past as well.

The main tool I use to figure out a character is their speaking voice. Obviously this is important for a narrator character, but even other characters remain sort of nebulous to me until I figure out how they talk.

Rusty James said...

As a reader I find I don't often take the writer's physical descriptions of his/her character into account - I picture the character on my own - unless there's some really defining characteristic like an eye patch or a wooden leg.

All I 'need' to know is age, sex, and maybe a brief identifier like "he always smells as if he's just come from the shitter".

Everything else I glean from the character's dialogue, action, and how others respond to him.