Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Characters



It’s been said that writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Lately, I’ve been trying not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of my task. There are so many factors to consider, it’s easy to get paralyzed and not want to do anything. For the past month, I’ve just been writing, unencumbered by my inner editor, paying no heed to whether my characters are paper-thin or my plot twists are cliché. It’s been a great exercise. A month later, I’ve essentially completed a rough draft (or more like an outline) of my story. The draft is about 50,000 words, and if I went back and added more descriptions, dialogue, backstory, and a few sub-plots, I would have the makings of a novel.

Now that I’ve gotten to this point, however, I’m forced to ask the dangerous questions: does my plot actually work? does it have enough suspense to keep the reader hooked? do I even know how to write effective dialogue? But most of all, I find myself asking if my characters are interesting enough for a reader to want to spend hours of his precious time with them. Forcing me to consider these questions has led me to decide to kill one of my main characters. Not kill as in kill her in a plot twist; I removed her completely, taking about quarter of my draft with her. It was painful, but necessary. I expected this might happen, and it was the reason I didn’t spend any time polishing the prose I knew I could cut at any time.

I am not alone in worrying about my characters. Many of the books on writing fiction say that nothing’s as important as developing believable, complex, multi-dimensional characters. Indeed, when I solicited blog topic ideas, most of you asked about my characters: how do you pick names, personalities and characteristics? do you base them on real people? how do you write about something or someone you know nothing about?

To answer your questions: I’m not sure yet. I’m still working out my process, and I’m learning a lot. I just finished The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, and it has some useful exercises on developing characters. It forces you to ask yourself questions I hadn’t even thought of, such as: what are the discrepancies between how your character views herself and how others view her?

A word on character names. I still haven’t decided on most of them. I am fairly certain about the name of my protagonist. I came up with his name by looking at names of lead characters in other books, and by perusing popular baby names on the social security website. But most of my other characters’ names I decided I’d fill in later. Turns out this wasn’t a great strategy either. In the days before computers, when you couldn’t just do a “find-replace-all” and change your character name with the click of a mouse, I imagine you’d have to be more certain of a character’s name before you got too far into the book. But with this modern word-processing feature, I’ve created my own problems. For example, one of my characters is a doctor for whom I haven’t thought of a good name, so I’ve been calling him “Dr. Chango” (change-o). Later, when I think of a suitable name, I plan to go back and change all the “Chango’s.” The problem is, now that I’ve spent so much time with this character and written his name so many times, I can’t think of him as anyone but Dr. Chango.

When you do decide on a name, you want it to be interesting enough that it will resonate with readers, but not so extreme that it sounds like a porn star name. I recently tried to get through one of Stuart Woods’s “Stone Barrington” novels, but couldn’t get past the absurd main character. “Stone” is exactly who you’d expect him to be: stoic, handsome, rich, well-educated, single, etc. But someone must enjoy spending time with him, as most of Woods’s books are bestsellers.

If the character is unique enough, the author can get away with an extreme name. Take Hannibal Lecter. We simply can’t imagine him being named anything but Hannibal Lecter. He’s such a unique and complex character that we allow the name. Speaking of complexity, Lecter is a perfect example of a multi-layered character. He has done unspeakable things, but we still respect him and even sympathize with him; this brilliant creature locked away in a cage. In fact, we almost can’t help but like the guy. At least until those horrendous Hannibal sequels came out.

Giving a reader conflicting feelings about a character is one of the most difficult things to pull off, and one of the most powerful. I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, the author of House of Sand and Fog. He said that many readers told him, I loved your book but I hated everyone in it. In that book, the two main characters make one bad decision after another -- you just want to reach through the page and shake them. But that’s what makes the characters real; that’s what keeps you reading.

Speaking of House of Sand and Fog—and I know I’m rambling now – Dubus pulls off something many beginning writer’s can’t: he creates believable charters who are nothing like him. It’s safe to say that he had to learn all the subtleties of an immigrant Iranian family through research.

In contrast, take Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep. While Prep is a wonderful book, it’s not hard to imagine Sittenfeld, who attended a similar prep school, as the main character.

Even with characters as unique as Hannibal Lecter or Dubus’s Iranian colonel, the author always draws parts of the characters from himself and people he knows (to answer another question I often get). It’s unavoidable. You just twist the facts enough so it’s not too obvious -- and so you don’t get sued.

So, for the next few weeks, while I still plan on writing a little every day, I’m going to work more on character development.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough. I need to go work on developing my lead character, Brawn Colinfield -- a tall, white dude with movie-star good looks who used to work at a biotech company.

3 comments:

  1. This is why I don't right....ahh, I mean write. I am so simple that I never even think to the depth that you point out so well...I wanted to say eloquently but my spelling is at issue here too. Regardless, I want to know does Colinfield drink too much; have a gambling problem (now that he has so much time on his hands....he doesn't have a real job, ya know). By the way, Brian, could you plan a poker party for me in August? Sorry, I digress....Anyway, that's all I got, except for....please do not forget your CRO roots, Biotech Boy!

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  2. Characters? I got one for you bro....

    If you could somehow weave the creepy bellhop from the bleak hospital hotel in Medellin into the story -- you know, the guy who served us inferno coffee in a mini plastic cup -- ohh.....si, senor, you might have something. Let's call him "Lenny".

    Lunch next Tuesday amigo. Same place, same time.

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  3. 50K words. That is impressive amigo. Keep up the good work.

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