Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Boring Characters

This is something I struggle with, and I’m not speaking about poorly written characters, I’m talking about the kind of story that starts off slow and then builds. I’m going to go over some of the problems I’ve encountered (in my own and other people’s works) and then later I’ll go into some solutions which I’ve thought of (but can never seem to implement in my own stories).

If your story has a normal guy (or gal) and then through the story things happen and they change, that is a legitimate story structure. But if at the start your character has many negative traits, and by that I mean they predominantly DON’T want to do stuff (they’re shy, they’re aimless, they’re afraid of taking a chance) it can make for a very slow, pedestrian start to the book. Obviously you want to provide a contrast, show their transformation, but boring is boring, whatever the reason.

Often writers use one (or all ) of the following excuses: 


1) It’s intentional, I want to put you in the mind of the character.
2) Yeah, it starts slow, but it really picks up around chapter six.
3) Can’t you just trust that I know what I’m doing and it will all make sense if you stick with it?

None of these responses hold water.
1) It’s intentional...
Just because it's on purpose doesn't make it a good idea. The problem here is writing about a character who is bored/confused/crazy/whatever and trying to get the reader in those kinds of states of mind is of no interesting to people, and whatever kind of story you tell, being of interest to the reader is paramount. There are some emotions that just don’t translate like that (and obviously some that do). It’s a matter of judgement which those are, but the point is managing to get a reader into the mind-state you want isn’t in and of itself a worthwhile thing, you have to have a reason for it. So, for example, nobody wants to feels the joy of a paedophile raping a child, but you could certainly write it that way.

2) ... it really picks up around chapter six.
Nobody cares. You can’t change feelings of dissatisfaction in hindsight. Either you’re into what you’re reading right now or you’re not, what happens in the future is of no relevance to the reader. The problem is that the writer isn’t in the same place as the reader. S/he knows what happens next and is viewing the story as a whole with a wider frame of reference.

3) Can’t you just trust that I know what I’m doing...
No. Setting up the big questions is easy. Is there a God? Why are eggs in the dairy section? How did the murderer get out of the locked room? Providing original and interesting answers is very difficult. If there isn’t an indication that the character at the start of the book is of interest, there’s no reason to think it’s all part of a master plan that will come good. Of course it could, but who has the time to find out? 

SOLUTIONS
So, it’s all very well shitting on all the people who (like me) struggle with opening chapters, but how do you fix the problem of a slow start?

Simple, if you have a character who is reluctant to do stuff, make them do it.

Obviously a person who is afraid of heights will avoid high places, but someone not doing things, someone staring up at a skyscraper and trembling isn’t very interesting or active. But you are God of your world, you can make the universe do what you want. Show his fear of heights by putting him in a high place. So, for example, at the start of the film Vertigo, James Stewart, a cop, is chasing a crook who goes up on a roof to escape. Jimmy could have just looked scared and stopped chasing him, but because he has a duty as a cop, he forces himself to go on, and we see how hard it is for him, but we also learn what kind for a man he is that he would try to overcome that fear (even though he fails).

So, if you want to show that someone has an aversion to something the way to show it is to put him in a situation where he is faced by the thing he hates. He won't do it voluntarily, but you're in control so you can make him. The guy suffering from vertigo has to end up on top of the tall building.

This works both ways. If a character WANTS to do something you should show him trying to do it and then you make it hard for him by putting obstacles in his path, thus showing how much he wants it. Often the boringness of an opening comes down to an active character who wants to do something, and he just does it. That’s just as uninteresting. He wants to, you stop him.

If a character DOESN’T want to do something, you force him into a situation where he can't avoid it and show his desperate attempts to deal with it. He doesn't want to, you make him.

It's the opposition to his desire (negative or positive) that provides the context for the reader to feel what the character feels. If a guy is shy of girls and stays in his room all the time (perfectly reasonable shy guy behaviour) it won't make much of a story. It’s easy to write, but not much fun to read. And a man doing nothing on his own can be doing nothing for an infinite number of reason, the only way you can get round it is go into his head and hear his thoughts, which is again, the easy route.

On the other hand, if a shy guy finds himself trapped in an elevator with six supermodels, his meltdown will be fascinating and it will still be clear he has a problem with girls.

And at the same time as making it clear what his desire/issue is, the way he reacts to the situation will show what kind of person he is, the way Jimmy Stewart risking his life on the rooftops told us what kind of a man he was.

If a guy has a boring life, show his reaction to someone with the life he wishes he had (in Stardust Memories Woody Allen gets on a train where everyone looks terrible and it’s dull and quiet. Then he looks out the window and see another train where the passengers are having a whale of a time. He tries to get off his train to join that one, but it’s too late as the train pulls out of the station).

If your character wants to be left alone, have him pestered by all and sundry. If he hates going out, send him an invitation he can’t refuse. Make him face the thing he wants to avoid. Letting him avoid it is too easy, and a simple, easy, straightforward story is of no interest to anyone.

So in summary
1) If a character wants to do something, make life difficult for him by putting things in his way.
2) If a character doesn’t want to do something, make life difficult for him by putting things in his way.

13 comments:

Mysti said...

I'm following you. I'm the first. Ain't I special? ;) I struggle with those hooks myself, and I like this post. Very true!

~Mysti

Twisted said...

I laughed at the eggs in the dairy comment. Very good. Your blog is full of wisdom, mooderino.

Carol Ervin said...

Excellent!

verado said...

I agree, it is difficult when you are trying to introduce your characters as everyday people, not to make them sound dull.

Jen

Brent Wescott said...

Great ideas. Again you show the right way and the wrong way. I sometimes get stuck thinking that I have no ideas at all, but you put it in simple terms that helps me to see that conflicts don't have to be complicated to be complex.
It Just Got Interesting

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