Thursday, 1 December 2011

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.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I recently got back my edits for book two from the editor with whom I've grown to trust. She pointed out quite plainly (aside from the line edits) that I had to eliminate a character or explain why it is in the text. I actually can't explain why the character is there. I put it in there thinking that I'd do something with it later and never did. I've been hiding from the chore of taking him completely out of the text (a big rewrite) thinking "oh I'll just use him in another sequel" but that isn't right to expect the reader to look forward to that when I don't even know why the hell he's in there either.

Reading your post here just tells me that I need to tackle this at some point. Maybe not today but yeah, characters need to be interesting. There needs to be a point to why they are in a scene. Otherwise, why the hell are you expecting someone to waste their time with it?

Thanks for the post moody.

Ben said...

Good post Moody. Placing yourself in the boots of the reader is something we don't do enough. Your posts are getting better and better, friend.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

I like it when an author reveals a character a little at a time, and creates depth for me to enjoy, like getting to know a person in real life.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wow, this is so spot on awesome! We see our characters so clearly, but we need to be sure our readers do as well.
And you bet I'll reTweet!

Jason Runnels said...

Good thing I don't golf. It's bad enough to have a terrible slice, but to have to keep looking over my shoulder at the guy carrying my clubs would simply be too much. ;-)
Seriously though, insightful post, thanks.

Alexis Bass said...

Awesome post and so true. It's such an art to write a character as you imagine them - especially getting tone and voice right.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Sometimes it's hard to remember that you haven't revealed as much to the reader as you know in your head. Excellent post.

Sophia said...

"[T]he writer has to know what she’s thinking at the BEGINNING of the scene, and the reader has to know by the END." This is such an excellent point, Mood. As the writer I may know why the character acts this way, or what I hope to reveal about them, but if the interpretation is left open to the reader then there's going to be a lot of different theories floating about.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking O.J. in this scenario. Great post. So much a writer can do to tell the truth rather than state a fact that engages the reader and prompts them to stay up late turning the pages. I'll tweet to this!

Suze said...

I think the gist of this is something you've transmitted many times over the course of your writing posts, and it's something that I can see makes good sense.

One thing I have noticed with my characters is that they reveal themselves to me as I write them. You're dead on about the level of understanding about character required of an author, but I guess that's the problem I've had with instruction on craft all along. It's like the way my brain interacts with myth and archetype feels more like taking dictation as opposed to really hashing things out, settling on an angle and then going about executing it.

My characters are who they are, and they do what they do. I read posts like this-- and please feel free to take that as a deep compliment-- then I sit in front of the screen chewing on what I've read. Eventually-- *especially* when it comes to character-- I come to the conclusion that, when writing, the best stuff is way more like being a channel than a mastermind. An author is both, in my opinion, and the balance between the two is just so damned fragile! But my characters feel like good and truly real people. They've a life of their own. For me to go in and pick them apart and inspect their motives for the purpose of writing a more interesting story feels a bit like trying to pin down both momentum and position of an electron. I don't want the wave function to collapse during the act of creation. There's too much mystery flying about that just gets smithereened when I think too hard about it. I realize approaches to creation are super personal. Which is why, I suppose, sometimes a writer will read advice from another writer and it'll be a help of epiphanic proportions and other times, it'll be a stumbling block.

In any event, character is where it's at. For readers and writers alike, no question. What an awesome responsibility, pleasure and challenge to do them justice.

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

Very thought provoking post!

Lydia Kang said...

Your posts always make me think about what I'm writing. Thanks Moody.

Margo Berendsen said...

"Your job is to write how that character deals with that situation in a way that reveals who they are to the reader." Spot on! I need this to pop up on my screen every hour or two while I'm writing...

Nancy Thompson said...

I think if you write about how your character FEELS about what they're doing, all that other stuff will be revealed. Emotion is the key to everything.

Golden Eagle said...

The part that stuck out to me the most is that the reader should know what the character is fully thinking at the end of the scene--it seems like that would build tension/suspense at the same time, as the layers are pulled away.

Great post!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Fabulous post on character. It's the subtle things that truly reveal character and make them interesting to read about.

mooderino said...

@michael-I do that sometimes, introduce a new character for the sake of it. But once you do get rifd of them (hard as that might be) you very quickly forget they were ever there.

@Ben-thanks very much.

@Karen-finding out something new about someone is always interesting, both in real life and in stories. A very prim and proper girl I knew once suddenly told me she had been a strippergram as a teenager, which was very surprising.

@Alex-thanks, you're a mensch.

mooderino said...

@jason-Yes, golf, the deadliest of all sports.

@Shannon-so true. In my head all my characters are fully formed and leading very interesting lives. Onthe page however...

@Sophia-I think ther are many ways to wrie a character, but the writer should make that choice, not leave it up to chance.

@Stephen-except OJ was innocent, of course.

mooderino said...

@suze-however the characters or story come to you, it's the way you assess and shape them in teh rewrites that really makes the difference, I think.

@KO - thank you.

@Lydia - cheers.

@Margo - I think it would make an excellent car bumber sticker.

@nancy - if you can convey how the character feels without telling the reader directly, it tends to have greater impact.

@Golden - I think you have to do it gradually for maximum benefit. Teh big reveal is good for certian moments, but the slow peeling back of layers is ultimately more satisfying, imo.

@Lynda - I agree. and you have to know someone pretty well to be subtle about them.

Suze said...

Mood, I could not get this post-- and what I'd written in response-- out of my head last night as I went to tackle a rewrite. I'd shelved those notorious three books in the month of November indefinitely but now have cause to revisit and when I went to rethink the two main characters of one of the stories, I found myself really hashing it out!!

nutschell said...

What a great post! Your posts always make me stop and reflect on my own writing--and they certainly are a great help as I do my rewrites :) thanks moody!

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