Thursday 25 October 2012

Reader Meets Character

In order for a reader to like a character that reader has to feel like they know the kind of person the character is.

This is easiest to achieve using archetypes, stereotypes and clichés. The cynical but brilliant detective, the unfairly betrayed wife, the shy but sweet nerd... You feel like you know these characters because you really have known them, in one guise or another, all your life.

And while the received wisdom is too avoid the overly familiar, I don’t think it can be denied that lots of successful books use character-types we’ve all seen many, many, many times before (maybe with an added twist, but not always); and these variations on Cinderella or Philip Marlowe or whatever can be very successful.

But often the reason writers fall back on the tried and tested is because they don’t really know how to get the reader to know the character quickly without resorting to the shorthand of referencing traits already out there.

If Mary is your best friend and I give you a hypothetical situation such as:

Mary’s going out with a guy for six months when he tells her it’s over because she’s put on a bit of weight and he doesn’t want to date a fat chick.

And then I ask you to tell me what you think Mary would respond, maybe even give you a few options:

a) punch him in the face.
b) burst into tears.
c) thank him for being honest and go to the gym.

I think, if you know Mary well, you’d have a pretty good idea of what Mary would do.

However, if you didn’t know Mary and I gave you some background information on her, and then asked you the same question, what sort of info would you need to be able make an educated guess?

What about her parents’ jobs, financial status, where her grandparents originated from?

These all might give you a sense of the type of person Mary might be, but lots of people are born on the same day in the same town, and they’re all pretty different, so knowing those sorts of details won’t really tell you anything specific in terms of personality.

In fact, only by relying on clichés can I really suggest anything with personal info of this sort. If I tell you she’s a single child of a lawyer and a doctor both of whom work long hours, then you might get the idea she’s lonely and starved of attention. But only because that’s how that particular family setup is portrayed. I’m sure there are a lot of kids with busy parents who are fine, or who wish their parents wouldn’t bother them so much.

Let me tell you a story about Mary. Back in nursery, we were only four, a boy came up to me and called me a bad word. There were no adults around (in those days kids weren’t mollycoddled like they are today, plus I think our nursery teacher had a terrible hangover). I burst into tears. Mary grabbed the boy by the back of the collar and dragged him into the bathroom, where she sat on his chest and forced him to eat a whole bar of soap, which she’d heard was what you did to someone who was rude.

Now, if I ask you the hypothetical question about Mary, would you have a better idea of which option to pick?

And it's not even that there's some similarity in backstory and hypothetical. If Mary was in the army and her unit was hit, if she was stalked by a serial killer or if her came face to face with an alien, that childhood story would still give you  a sense of how she'd react.

The point is details may provide details, but only story tells you the story. Backstory, exposition, general background information all makes more sense to the reader when it is portrayed as an event that happened rather than a list of data.

And while filling outa character sheet is a good place to start the getting to know you process, it isn’t until you know the gossip-worthy moments of a person’s life that you get a feel for them as a person. 

Then again, a one-dimensional villain isn't always a bad thing...
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's why I always work on the characters long before I write the story. Usually long before I even construct the plot.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Good post! This makes a lot of sense - "...but only story tells you the story."

You could have said/summarized, "Mary beat up a bully for me when I was a kid" and that gives a small sense of Mary as a defender but the STORY you told shows us the kind of person Mary is.

Murees Dupè said...

Fantastic post. I create characters that are a little weird and just hope the reader will identify with them. Thank you for the info.

mooderino said...

@Alex-a good character can make all the difference.

@Madeline-putting it in anecdote helps make it obvious if it's interesting.

@Murees-you're very welcome.

Mel Chesley said...

You know, even before I "met" Mary I chose the option of punching the person in the face. Simply because that is what I would have done. :D But you are right. You have to get to know your character and figure out their quirks. I usually have a good idea in mind when I create a character and I can figure out what sort of personality they'll have from the get go. Creating characters is my favorite part of the process. I've got some off beat characters and some single dimensional ones as well. Great post!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I came face to face with this last night. Both my friend and I watched last night's episode of Supernatural. After it was over, he sent me a message and said, "What a heart-breaking episode." I responded, "I thought it was lame."

Then we discussed it, mostly because I was wondering why the episode touched him so deeply. A little background is needed. Last night's episode was about a man that lived in the shadow of a more attractive man who had a girlfriend that loved him, however, she would have been better off going with the less attractive man.

It turns out that my friend has experienced this kind of heart break over and over in his life. And I haven't. Therefore, the episode really touched a chord with him, and it's exactly what you are talking about here. Creating characters and situations that a reader can relate to.

Great post Moody!

sjp said...

I always know how my characters will react to things, iv never had much trouble with that, but allowing the reader that insight is something else, good point :)

mooderino said...

@Mel-finding a way for the reader to know the character as well as you do is the part I think most writers struggle with especially at the start of the story.

@Michael-finding a situation that doesn't feel cliched, but is still relatable, is hard to do, very easy to fall into too vague or too obvious.

sjp-yeah, the transference of knowledge is the tricky bit.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post Moody,it shows I need to work a lot more on my characters. Sometimes I jump into the story without knowing much about the characters.

nutschell said...

haha. Love that comment at the end about one dimensional villains:) I like to flesh out my characters before I begin writing the story. But once I do write the story, the characters have different ideas about who they are--so i just go with the flow:)


mooderino said...

@Rachna-sometimes jumping in and working out who your characters are as you go is a good way to sort things out for the next draft.

@nutschell-I think once you develop a character their voice is just your subconscious guiding you. Either that or you're a witch.

Lydia Kang said...

Sometimes a one dimensional villain is fun, but for the most part I like when they're not 100% cliche, you know?

mooderino said...

@lydia-I think if you're intention is to create a boo-hiss type of villain, that's okay. Effective versions of that are possible. But I think a character that has depth and sophistication in the writer's head but not on the page never works.

LucyJay said...

I love to imagine my characters in real life situations during my own day, sometimes can be quite amusing!! xx

Charmaine Clancy said...

I reckon Mary'd be a lot of fun to take on a girl's night out.

mooderino said...

@LucyJay-knowing your characters well enough to do that is important, but then you have to find a way to let the reader in on that, which can be quite tricky.

@Charmain-as long as you remember to keep bobbing and weaving.

Christine Rains said...

I completely agree. All the books that I list in my favorites involve stereotypes. Makes me wonder if Mary is on her way to becoming the next villain!

mooderino said...

@Christine-somehow other writers can pull it off but when I do it, it looks cliched. Wish I could figure it out.

cleemckenzie said...

It does take a lot more work to create those characters that are not easily recognized stereotypes. However, it pays off if you take the time to develop those "people" in fresh and exciting ways.

Great post as usual. Glad to be back from my blogging break.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of the planning stage for NaNoWriMo and having problems with my characters, this will help a lot.

Barry Hoffman said...

It took this writer more than a little bit of time to get to the point of the article. He/She talks about the creation of stereotypical characters as if that's a good thing; characters readers can relate to. Then two-thirds through the author gets to what is most essential which is adding a back story to characters, whether the most significant in the book or secondary characters. That should have been the emphasis from the beginning. I love creating backstories for my characters -- ALL of them. I don't lay a backstory out all at once, but here and there over the course of numerous chapters. When this character (even a secondary) characrter does something or has something happen to her the reader can get a better understanding of her reaction. Or, if this character is killed of the reader can sympathize for her or cheer her death. The author then ends with the most foolish comment of all -- "a one-dimensional villain isn't always a bad thing." No, it's a TERRIBLE idea. Far to many authors write a paragraph or a page to describe a villain where multi-layers are required. Consider cops. There is a line almost every cop straddles between doing good and becoming corrupt or overly aggressive and violating the rights of others. Why do some cops go one way while others follow a different path? Backstory provides the answer. In my adult novel there are some good people who do bad things. Horrible things. It's the why that allows the reader to determine his/her feelings for the villain ... maybe even emphathize with the villain.

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