Monday, 18 August 2014

Interesting Characters: You are what you eat

Story is viewed differently by the writer than it is by the reader.

A writer knows what kind of person he is writing about, and uses that to inform what that character does on the page.

A reader knows what a character does and uses that to understand what kind of person that character is.

Both are looking at the same thing, but from different ends. The thing they are both looking at is this: what people do reveals the truth of who they are.

But truth and fact are NOT the same thing.


If I tell you there’s a widower who enjoys playing golf every day, that may be factual, but it contains no inherent truth. If I tell you of a man who is found innocent of killing his wife, who insists he will work tirelessly to find her real killer, who then spends 8 hours a day on the golf course, then those facts tells you something very true about that man (unless, of course, he suspects the real killer is a caddy).

It is the writer’s job to communicate who characters are through what they do in the story. But for that to be of interest to a reader, they need to be interesting characters. A dull character accurately portrayed through his actions results in a dull story. Obviously the writer decides what he feels is interesting, but it is important the writer MAKES that decision. Not just write a scene and hope for the best.

Consider, if you take a known character, someone you know personally, or an archetype, or even a clichéd stereotype, and then put them in a situation, you can very quickly work out what they would do. If the evil stepmother finds out Cinders has small, glass-slipper-sized feet, or if the barbarian warrior is challenged to a fight by an annoying girl, or your Aunt Marge doesn’t get invited to the family get together, you can very quickly work out what that character’s options are. That’s the level of understanding you need for your own characters.

Once you have that level of insight into your character, and you have a situation you want to put that character into, your job then is NOT to write how that character deals with that situation. Your job is to write how that character deals with that situation in a way that reveals who they are to the reader.

Again I want to emphasise, that reveal needs to be something specific and interesting and worth knowing. Generic information, tastes, preferences, favourite colour, these things can all be put to use, but they are incidental.

If you’re writing about a professional thief, and she is about to steal something, walking the reader through the job, step by step, is going to have limited appeal. It will read as mechanical. That can still produce something impressive, but it is a technical production, like a stunt in a movie. But if the thief was raped by the owner of the house she’s robbing, and her attitude is you stole the thing most precious to me, so I’m going to do likewise, then that makes every move she makes totally gripping. And for that to work properly the writer has to know what she’s thinking at the BEGINNING of the scene, and the reader has to know by the END.

If the thing you’re revealing about your character is unusual or surprising enough, the thing they’re doing that demonstrates it can be quite mundane. As long as you’re revealing new information, as long as it’s specific to the character and not a general truth (like hungry people like to eat food, or people in mourning cry a lot etc.) how you go about it doesn’t matter. Obviously it matters to you, but the reader will stay engaged in whatever you choose to write, as long as layers are being peeled off to show more of the character’s core.

Look at every scene and ask yourself what is being revealed about these characters to the reader? And is it something worth knowing? Are you peeling back the layers so the reader is getting to know them better? Because in the end you want the reader to end up knowing them as well as you do.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
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This post first appeared in December 2011.




6 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

An ogre is like an onion...
Sorry, couldn't resist.
It's going deeper with the character to the emotional level. That aspect has to come through.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I love the picture of the onion. It kind of drives home your point, which is what I'm sure you were going for. Layers, layers, layers, people!

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. Layers are so important. And the slow peeling of them.

Chemist Ken said...

I think I'm going to have to print this post out and tape it up next to the computer screen. It's these deeper levels where all the power of the story lies, and I find it all too easy to focus only on the outer layers. Great post.

Lady Lilith said...

Lots of layers. Great reference to the onion.

mooderino said...

@Alex - Shrek reference? Only ogre I know.

@Mike - indeed, as in fashion so in fiction.

@Christine - thanks.

@Ken - cheers.

@Lilith - onions are the key to storytelling (maybe).

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