Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing 101 - Characters

Characters. Entire books have been written around creating them, and for good reason. You can write the most epic story possible and have it fall flat because you didn’t create good characters.

So, how do you catch the fact that you might be trouble – that you are using props instead of characters?

1. You refer to your characters as a pronoun most of the time.
2. You have a hard time figuring their name.
3. You can’t describe them.
4. You are writing in First Person and delivering long monologues.
5. They are all-powerful.
6. They have no regrets, sadness, or any emotion. Just an “action figure”.
7. Character “A” sounds and acts exactly like character “B”.
8. The character does exactly what you want every time.
9. The character starts spouting your personal philosophies or opinions.

A good character starts out with a bibliography, be they antagonist or protagonist. You should know something of their history and how they were raised. They should have parents and friends too. The character should come with a full set of emotions – from pride to regret. They should feel pain, remorse, and generally be human beings like the rest of us – even if they are not human. They can make the wrong choices, have quirks, and exhibit unique traits. You should know what they look like, what they prefer to wear, and also what their ambitions and motivations might be.

Once you have established your character (and we’re mainly talking about your primary characters here) then you should see the character take on a bit more “life”. If you have to squeeze into their mindset in order to ask “What would they do?” then you are on the right track. If you start thinking “No, they wouldn’t do that.” then you are right where you want to be.

In critiquing new writers, I find that the greater majority of character flaws come in three flavors.

1. The super-duper action figure. He or she kills gods for breakfast, feels no pain, and can tear a person’s head off without a second thought. Welcome to Egos Gone Wild where the author is having a wonderful fantasy at the expense of good writing. The super is as often a villain as a hero in this case, and replaces any genuine emotions with large helpings of melodrama. They often live in either a Fantasy or Military SF environment.

2. The possessed character. Often found in First Person point of view, this character sounds like one long droning rant. Their dialog could be cut and paste into any Forum or diary. Sometimes, the voice box is a poet – spewing all these flowery phrases. Other times, they are simply a pair of eyes describing in detail the scene before them just as if the author was narrating what he or she is seeing – because what has happened here is just that. The author has reached in and made themselves a hand puppet so they can voice box their own opinions. It is so easy to fall into this sort of trap as a writer that I strongly suggest new folks to the craft avoid First Person until they really can understand how it works. First Person begs you to take over your characters.

3. The robot. Character walks into a room. Does this. Does that. Kills this. Kisses that. Says a few words. Walks out. Nothing is hard. Nothing is worth thinking about. They say their scripted lines and that’s that. Rather than a character, you have a plot vehicle to move things along as they’re supposed to go. They have no concerns because they have no opinions to be concerned about. Good little robot.

So, lets show two characters who really have minds of their own – in fact, they don’t like each other at all. Here is Rick and Jamie from Waiting Weapon.

Only dead leaves answer an empty wind,” came a light voice in the melodic Me’Aukin language.
An olive-skinned young woman walked in behind them. She was small by human standards, but stood eye-to-eye with Rick. This was no ghost. Rick could practically taste the swirling eddies behind her thoughts. She wore an off-white wool sweater with brown leather lapels and cuffs that matched her tailored pants. Jet-black hair curled along a delicate jaw line, giving her a disarmingly fragile appearance. Rick knew better.
Like him, Jamie’s eyes were a deep ebony. They focused on him over a narrow nose, her expression no less intense than his own awareness of her. He noticed the moment of hesitation between her breaths. The subtle working of muscles along her throat. The intensity of her presence was stronger now than he ever remembered. The scientists at the Institute called it an empathic awareness. He called it stifling back then, and it apparently had only gotten worse.
Rick took a mentally clearing breath. “Ma’thell.
Ma’thelsa,” came Jamie’s more cautious greeting. “I didn’t expect to see you before I left.” She glanced at Andrea. “Problems at the site?”
“Nothing to be concerned over,” Andrea replied with a manufactured grin. “Going back to Corven?”
Jamie’s lips curved in an equally perfunctory smile. “Leaving shortly, as a matter of fact. I’m resuming my studies in political science at Lake Austin as ordered. Actually, I think Father’s nervous about having both Rick and I on the same planet.” Her eyes bored into Rick, her mind seeming to dig even further. “Still pretending to be human?”
He stiffened. “Are we going to pick up that old argument again?”
Jamie shrugged. “Don’t be offended. When it’s politically convenient for the Colonel, I pretend to be his daughter.” Her eyes lowered. “Forgive the interruption.” She turned to leave, and then paused. Rick was not sure if the shudder was physical or emotional. “Have you heard them?” she spoke once more in Me’Aukin. Her long fingers brushed against her temples. His startled reaction brought genuine relief to her face. “As I thought. Was it the whispers that chased you back, then?

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