Monday, July 25, 2016

Out of Character

Sat July 16 I was scheduled to read at Noir at the Bar event in DC. I'd tried working on a few different projects, but nothing was coming together. My most recent stories were too long and couldn't be pared down to the length needed.

Channeling my inner high school procrastinating skills, on Thursday July 14 I penned a short story. Initially at 2600 words, it too needed to be trimmed. I was confident I could squeeze it down to 1500 or so and be ready for Saturday.

One of my fellow Radioactive Writers read it and sent back notes, and we discussed the story at length over Skype. Rewrite followed rewrite.

For the purposes of Saturday's event I wanted to; a. Keep it to 1500 words or less, b. Keep it crime, and c. Tuck in some inside jokes for Marietta Miles, who was also reading at the event.

The inside jokes were references to The Walking Dead.

As the process of revision unfolded my critique partner suggested a reference to a Tom Waits song. It was a song Beth sang in the hospital.

Now, the song didn't make the cut. That's not the point. The point is, the suggestion got me thinking about Beth. Would sweet, innocent, sheltered Beth sing Tom Waits? Keith Green, sure. Tom Waits? Undecided.

I posed the question to Brian and that's when he pointed out to me that in some of my books I've had characters reading certain novels he doesn't think that character would read. He says it's common for authors to make that mistake to name drop friends' books.

Of course, I argued back with him that despite his and Bry's own views on religion they're all up on Parker Millsap, despite a lot of God references scattered throughout his lyrics. (And, I mean, who isn't all up on Parker Millsap? I guess anyone who hasn't heard of him, but damn, is he talented.)

However, he has a point about the book references in novels. They often pull the protagonist out of character to serve the author's agenda instead of maintaining character consistency.

Now, I'll be the first to say that I think people can be more diverse than story characters often are, and real people are often filled with contradictions that aren't accepted in character development (as I pointed out to Brian). However, both of those aspects of character development involve narrowing the focus on the character in a story. Inserting musical or written references that contradict the perception of the character don't expand that character; they simply contradict how they've been developed.

Maybe after the apocalypse, after the barn and the brutal deaths they'd seen, maybe then Beth would have listened to Tom Waits, but the only way for her to sing that song was if she knew if before the world turned to hell, and it feels like a stretch to me. I just wasn't convinced. Wild child Maggie, sure. Naive little Beth? Hmmmm. Not sold.

Whenever a character does something to suit the author's purpose the risk is that the reader will be pulled out of the story, and when that happens you risk losing them. Works that are character driven flow from a consistency of character with believable choices the characters make that drive the plot forward.

The other end of the spectrum is placeholder people who do what the author needs to follow their plot. The dumb people who, after being chased by a freak with a knife, hear a noise in the cellar and go to see what it is instead of running away. Or, you know, Kevin from Bloodline, who does everything he's told not to do.

This is an issue that crops up a lot in plot-driven writing. When the focus is on outlining and following a formula for storytelling, the compromise can be wooden characters who don't flow organically through the events because the author's more focused on scenes they want to incorporate than telling a story about a protagonist that flows from their motivation.

I was trained in outlining. When I took my creative writing diploma I worked under the tutelage of an author who had several books to her name. I felt apologetic telling her why I'd continued a manuscript (that eventually became Suspicious Circumstances) but abandoned the outline and why.

Her response? "You've a real writer." She credited me for knowing the limitations of the outline and being able to toss it aside when necessary in order to ensure the development of the characters and the story was organic and believable.

Ask if a character would really do something, and if so, Why? What's their motivation? If you can't answer those questions for a novel you're reading or writing chances are the character isn't well developed.

1 comment:

Marietta Miles said...

Yay!!!! I'm a character gal. Everything I do is driven by my characters. Plot is driven by character. Good article Sandra!