Last week, we talked about structure and its importance to story construction. As part of my ongoing multi-part report from my experiences at different writer’s workshops, today let’s look a little deeper at the mechanics of storytelling by focusing once again on character creation.
Most beginning novelists encounter two major challenges: developing a clear storyline and creating vivid, believable characters. We’ve covered plot and characterization before, but nevertheless it’s important to remember that stories are what about happens to the characters we care about. Relatable characters illicit an emotional response and they reveal who they are by what they do and say.
That being said, don’t get too caught up in the accuracy of your characters actions and motives. You’re aiming for an element of universal appeal. It doesn’t matter much whether you accurately (and stringently) depicting the life of a 35-year-old dentist in depression era Brooklyn, as long as you reader can find something to relate to in that character. Don’t push the boundaries of credibility just for the sake of being daring, but try not to get bogged down in specific details…if you’re character feels real, the they will give you all the credibility you need.
Comedic performances in film and TV are a perfect distillation of this idea. Think back on some of the comedy films you’ve enjoyed over the last few years – maybe it was something by Judd Aptow and company, or maybe you really loved Bridesmaids or the Hangover. Comedy often succeeds by taking something familiar and pushing it to the point it over the top. Are you ever going to find yourself in a Vegas hotel room with a tiger and a missing tooth? Probably not, but can you relate to the way those characters reacted to that situation? Absolutely.
I was recently reading the coverage of HBO’s new “water cooler” series Girls. In an online discussion about the show on Slate, one of the commentators posited “Girls is not a documentary; its artistic success (or failure) depends less on how precisely accurate it is with regard to the lives of privileged 20-something women in New York than how dramatically compelling its characters and stories are.”
Crafting dramatically compelling characters can be a difficult hat trick to master. You may have a handle on who your character is (and if you don’t, then stop plotting this instant and get back to the drawing board), but how do you let the audience in on this?
One important step is to determine point of view. Think about how you see the events of the story playing out and then decide how those same events are perceived by your character. When you give your characters a tangible point of view, the reader understands what the character is thinking in any given situation, without all those insights and feeling having to be spelled out. For example, if your character is a racist, then his interactions with other characters will be colored by that prejudice. If your character is poor, their reaction to wealth will be different. Or what if they’re wealthy now but grew up in poverty. Or vice versa. Your character might be a vegetarian or politically inclined or horny. But we’ve all got our own way of seeing things – and so do the folks who inhabit your story.
The best way to add dimension and depth to your characters involves the use of detail and interaction. Vivid details – a limp, bad breath, a tendency to put on too much eye makeup – transform plot placeholders into people. The choices your characters make – lock the front door, alert the clerk that he gave back too much change, sleep with the secretary, rob the bank – reveal who they are, from the big themes about identity and karma, to the small idiosyncrasies that make your character stand out from a crowd. Flaws are important too. What bad habits do they battle? What prejudices color their world view? Do they talk too much or not often enough?
Like painting a wall and getting the true color – it’s all about layers. You need a primer and a top coat, but if you really want the wall to look like that swatch you brought home from the hardware store, you better plan on multiple coats if you want that perfect shade of green.
And don’t be afraid to go deeper. Like I mentioned earlier, big issues – like racism, poverty, past traumas – they all will inform your characters motives, actions and reactions. Take the time to really think about your character’s IQ , their temperament, their inner psychology. What is their sexuality – and do they pretend it’s something else? What are they afraid of and what do they love? What do they accept without question and what makes them skeptical. Perhaps none of these elements will end up in the final draft, but they are all part of the character portrait you’re painting.
But characterization isn’t just navel gazing – it also moves the plot forward. First off, certain internal events will happen that effect the final outcome of the story – is your character confused or upset? Are they going through a midlife crisis? Are they making goals or shirking their own resolutions? What are their secret and not-so-secret motives? Are they greedy…in love…dying. Do they have a duty to something or someone? Are they ruled by honor or by the feeling that they are the smartest man in the room? Do they have a need for revenge or justice?
Don’t worry about piling too much on to one character. Mr. Rochester, for example, feels a duty to care for Adele and his [spoiler!] crazy wife locked up in the attic. But he also feels ambivalent towards this child of a French whore and the schizophrenic who tricked him to marriage. On top of all that, he’s an aristocratic with a international business commitments, a drafty old house in the British countryside that must be maintained, and a gaggle of stylish friends who want nothing more than to party-it-up with week long hunting parties and visits with spooky fortune tellers.
And what Mr. Rochester wants, above all else, is the love and devotion of Ms. Jane Eyre. He’s got a lot on his plate – and that makes him all the more compelling and unforgettable.
A quick note on point of view in this context versus “point-of-view” as a narrative device: the former relates to character development while the latter refers to how your story is actually told. Narrative point-of-view can be divided into four types: the objective, first person, third person point of view and omniscient. Hopefully you’ve covered these types in high school English, but if not, here’s a handy summary (http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/read/pov2.html).
When deciding how to tell your story, think about the ways in which you want to delivery narrative information to your reader. Do you want them to know what your character is thinking, or would you have multiple characters vying for their own version (Game of Thrones is a great example of this), or is it just easier to be the ruler of your domain, omniscient and god-like, relating the facts and doling out information on a “need to know basis.” Different methods work for different stories and sometimes you’ll go through several drafts in first person, only to realize that the story really needs an objective tone to work. I remember hearing once that the first version of Memoirs of a Geisha was told from an objective point-of-view (or maybe omniscient), and it wasn’t until he switch the story to the first person that it suddenly all made sense.
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