Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Chicken or the Egg? Or is it, the Character or the Story?

We all have a favorite character of a book, comic, movie or TV show. It can be the hero, who inspires devotion, or the villain, who inspires fear. It can be a quirky supporting cast member that adds a dash of something extra into the mix that makes the story richer.
They are so dynamic, so intense, and so vital to the story, you just cannot imagine them not being there. Imagine Family Guy without Stewie.

You got my point.

One consistent comment made in reviews about As The World Dies: The First Days, is that the characters of the story are well-developed and come across as real people. Some fans have written me to say that the two leads, Jenni and Katie, feel like friends.

I understand how they feel. When I write about the dead world Jenni and Katie live in and the people that surround them, I try to portray them as real, flesh and blood people facing tough choices. I firmly believe that if you want your story to be compelling you have to have characters that people care about. I try hard with even minor characters to create people that seem real and feel like someone you may know.

Otherwise, when I kill them, you're not going to cry. *evil grin*
But kidding aside, when people ask me what comes first, the story or the characters, I have no real definitive answer. Sometimes the character just appears in my head and I have no idea what their story is, just who they are. Jenni was like that. She just appeared in my mind's eye one day when I was at work. I saw her standing on her front porch, staring at these tiny fingers pressed under the front door, holding her bathrobe closed with one hand, and shivering in chilled morning air. It was a sharp, vivid image. And I knew nothing about her story, but I wanted to. So I wrote what I "saw" in my mind's eye as soon as I could take a break. I'm an organic writer, so one sentence lead to the next and I was along for the ride. When Katie arrived, I had no idea who she was either! All I knew was that she was saving Jenni from certain death. Once they were safely inside the truck, I finished my "short story" that I named Tiny Fingers.

Or I thought it was a short story.

It's now a trilogy, so what do I know?

What kept me writing (beyond the initial response from readers on the forum I posted it on) was the characters. I wanted to know what would happen to Jenni and Katie and if they would live or die. So I kept writing.

But sometimes, the story comes first and I have no idea who will populate the new world. When that happens, I start considering who might have a role in the story and usually that spurs on my imagination and characters start appearing. There are certain things that help me "discover" a character.

  • What they look like

  • Their name

  • Their occupation

  • Their primary motivation in life
Once I have decided on these traits, the character usually comes into sharp focus and I "get" them.

Example: Peggy from As The World Dies

  • She's in her early forties, somewhat plain looking, obviously a smoker from the condition of her skin, and has a very husky voice that drawls out in a thick West Texas accent

  • Peggy-It just felt right for her. It was almost Patsy, but Peggy just felt more solid.

  • City Secretary of a small Texas town. I have met many of these ladies. They are no nonsense, hard workers who run their towns. Trust me. The power in a small town in Texas is the city secretary, not the mayor.

  • To take care of her town and her son. When she doesn't feel in control of what is going on, her stress levels overwhelm her. She's emotional, but tough
Once I had these basics down, the character became solid and well-rounded.

My favorite books are ones with a solid plot, good dialog and characters I can care about. I can't stand to read a book where the characters seem to slip and slide from one persona to another. They never seem to have an consistency and are just used to forward the plot.

Here are a few pointers to make a good character. I've gleaned this information from my favorite and not so favorite writers as I've figured out from their writing what works and what doesn't.

  • Do not create a perfect character. A perfect person, who knows everything, never fails, never stumbles, never doubts, and never struggles is boring. If the reader figures out the character is so perfect he/she will never make a mistake, all suspense is gone.
  • Don't create a character that has traits that would make she or he unlikable in the real world, but have everyone in your novel love her/him. Your characters should respond realistically. It makes zero sense for your unlikable character to have the undying adoration of the masses if he or she is a total dick.
  • If you establish firmly a certain personality trait about your character, don't abruptly toss it away if it doesn't fit where you want the plot to go. Have a good reason for your character to go against their nature. It causes tension, drama and character development.
  • Keep up a consistency about your characters appearance. I remember being annoyed when I was growing up with the Nancy Drew books. In one book her hair was the color of bronze, the next she was strawberry blond.
  • Don't blur the line between your character and you. Your character is not you and you are not your character. If your character is an avatar for you, then you'll end up doing wacky shit to try and protect her and her choices (no matter how crazy.) Yes, LKH, I'm thinking of you and Anita Blake.
Characters are vital to a story. They should never be treated as secondary. Books I've read that have weak characterization are not ones I remember fondly, or even at all.

If you're about to start a new writing project, or working on one now, I highly recommend working on your character biographies before you dive in. Your story will be richer and better for it.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this one. Characters make or break your story. I will still go to my grave believing that Nerit was my all-time favorite character. You did such an outstanding job on her! Anyhow, have a great day!



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