Sunday, March 29, 2015

Keeping It Real - How to Write Vivid Characters

Surprise! GOING UNDER has been translated into Italian and is now SEXY GAMES over there. Don't you just love the cover? I want those shoes. Shouldn't I get to have them, as part of my contract?

This week at the Bordello, we're wrestling with a topic every writer fears - Character Cloning: How To Avoid Reusing the Voices, Mannerisms, and Bad Habits of Characters. At least, I hope every writer worries about this because falling into ruts like this can lead to a major decline in quality of the work. As a character-driven writer, I especially focus on making each character as unique as possible.

However, I'm not entirely sure how I do it.

I'm a very organic writer in many ways, and regarding characters most of all. My (perhaps overly simplistic) answer to how to avoid Character Cloning is to write characters as real people. But how do you do that?

Let me tell you a little story. I once took a directing class (as you do) and, for the final project, we staged one-act plays for real audiences over two nights. It was fascinating to listen in on conversations about the play I directed - because I was simply an invisible part of the crowd, people did not censor at all. What I learned was that at any point in the play where I had not been crystal clear on what was going on, what my two characters were thinking and feeling, the audience had been unclear. The actors simply relayed my ideas. The whole play became a kind of physical manifestation of my thoughts - both clear and muddy.

It's a kind of magic that I don't really understand. I just know it's true. And it works for characterization in books, too.

Jeffe's Tips for Keeping It Real

  1. Know Their Offstage Lives - Characters should have lives that have been going on before they walk onto the page and after the walk off again. Even the most minor characters. You don't necessarily need to write this out, but you do need to know it. Some writers find it helpful to write all that out, but for me that's displacement activity and energy I could be using to write the actual book. Your mileage may vary. However you get to it, having this understanding in your head will come through on the page. You don't have to spell it all out on the page (in fact, please don't!) - I promise it will come through. Like Magic.
  2.  Know What They're Not Saying - We all have internal monologues, the thoughts that run through our heads that we don't vocalize. What your characters DON'T say is perhaps more important than what they do say. And no, you don't have to give this insight into their thoughts either. Like with their offstage lives, there's no need to detail this on the page (again, please don't!) - just trust that the magic makes it happen.
  3.  Know Them In All Their Beautiful Complexity - So, this goes against A LOT of writing advice and Common Wisdom. The GMC method (Goal-Motivation-Conflict) can be a useful way of condensing the plot. When we're asked to create loglines for queries or back-cover copy, we have to do this. What do they want and what keeps them from getting it. But remember that this is about plot, about picking out the visible actions of the characters, the salient high points. If you think about a real person - yourself, for example - it's nearly impossible to condense to a single goal, motivation and conflict. If I asked you what you want out of life, it would be a long list. (Or a very short, umbrella one, like "to be happy.") Likewise with whatever is getting in your way. With the exception of people who've done tons of self-examination, few of us know what issues are keeping us from having everything we want. Thus, while you might find it useful to reduce your characters to a single, straight-line GMC, keep in mind the hugeness of who they are beside that. For the third time (do I really have to say it?), don't put it all on the page. But do know it. 
Trust in the magic. 

No comments:

Post a Comment