Friday, October 29, 2010

Let's Meet Your Characters

In my most un-humble opinion, creating memorable and loveable characters is the most essential part of any writer's job.  I know that not all writers feel this way, and that's fine - everyone's entitled to their opinion.  But I do think that regardless of how exciting the story, regardless how twisty and turny your plot is, without three-dimensional characters to race along the surprise-laden path you've laid, will anyone really care?

After all, what would Star Wars be if Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan were a kid and an old guy?  What would Gone with the Wind be if Rhett and Scarlett were just a guy and some dame?  And what will your story be, if you don't create your characters as fully-fleshed, breathing and feeling human beings?

So let's meet your characters, shall we?

Ms. Writer, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Character (no gender-bias intended!).  Okay Ms. Writer, take a look at your character.   How are you going to go about getting to know him?  Well, you can always start with the first thing you notice about anybody you meet: their appearance.

Ooh, a little superficial, isn't it?  Well, let's start on the outside and we can work our way in later!

What does he look like?

I've studied a lot about the art of characterization, and many writers seem to fall into two camps: 1) describe the character's appearance in minute detail, or 2) give as little detail as possible.  And depending on your writing style, you may find yourself going to either extreme.  Both are fine, as long as the "minute detail" doesn't translate into "long boring paragraphs," and as long as "little detail" doesn't translate into "I can't tell these characters apart because apparently everybody looks alike!"

The other thing to remember is that no matter how much painstaking detail you put into describing your characters, no matter how lovingly you draw their features with the finest of brushes, no two readers will ever have the same image when they read your story!  We all superimpose our own mental images on the people we read about.  We just can't help it - and when you think about it, why would we want to?  When we read we are entering the universe created by the writer, but we are also creating a universe all our own.  That's the magic of reading and of writing.

So on the question of "a lot of detail, or a little?" I generally try to aim somewhere in the middle (you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?).  I've found that there are certain specific details I like to establish for myself, and then I sort of let the rest go.  The physical elements that are essential to me are:

Hair color and style
Eye color and shape
Height and overall body shape (weight lifter, swimmer or couch potato)
Any unusal or memorable physical characteristic (manicured fingernails, freckles, a tiny nose like a tulip)

Much more will be communicated about your characters by their attitudes and speech patterns (more on that in future blogs!).  But you want to give your reader enough detail to give their imagination something to grab onto.  When they read "Maggie," you want them to know that she's the girl with red hair and freckles, not the girl with blond hair and glasses. 

That's one reason why it's good to give your characters unusual physical characteristics: someone with long fingernails might have trouble dialing the phone; someone with freckles might spend more time putting on makeup (if she were self-conscious about it, of course!).  But all of these things feed into who the characters are on the inside as well as the outside!  Physical characteristics play into attitudes and personality, just as attitude and personality affects the way we appear to others.

Another physical aspect that communicates character is how they move.  John Travolta once said that when he goes about creating a character as an actor, he starts with the walk.  Think about it: Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction, Chili Palmer from Get Shorty, and of course, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray!  Three distinct characters, three distinct ways of communicating characterization simply through motion.

Of course, it's easy to convey motion in the movies - in writing it's more of a challenge!  A good way to accomplish this is through the use of simile and metaphor:

Simile (saying that something is like something else): "She drove like she was Dale Earnhardt's long-lost daughter and every street was the Talladega Speedway."

Metaphor (saying that something is something else): "Not the marrying kind?  That's an understatement!  The man was a jackrabbit on Viagra!"

Of course, it can get kind of heavy-handed if you overuse it, but in small doses you will find that your characters begin to leap to life, and right off the page!

Who are some of your favorite fictional characters, and what is it about their physicality that most sticks with you?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fiction Writing: What's It Made Of?

It's been said that there are three basic elements to fiction: plot, characters, and setting.  Over the next few weeks I'd like to get into each of these individually, but for now let's just take a quick look at these important ingredients in your fiction pie:

Plot - To put it plain and simple, "plot" is your story line.  It's the chain of events that takes your characters on a ride, and brings your readers along with them.  A good plot doesn't necessarily have to be exciting in an oh-my-god-we-have-to-find-and-diffuse-the-bomb kind of way, but should contain at least minor amounts of mystery and excitement, even if it's just in an oh-my-god-where-are-my-car-keys-so-I-can-go-out-on-my-first-date-in-years kind of way! 

Characters - Of the three elements, this one is definitely my favorite.  Why?  Well, mainly because I'm lazy, I guess.  It's always been my belief that if you have good characters, they write their own story, which keeps the need for plotting at a minimum!  Okay, that's a little bit of a joke (although it's not entirely untrue, either!)  "Characters" are, of course, the people in your book.  You could also look at them as the readers' guides: the ones who are leading your readers along the path that is laid by your plot.  Relatable characters are essential for telling a good story.

Setting - Well, if the plot is your path, and the characters are your guides, what does that make setting?  Your scenery!  But of course, it's a bit more than that.  Setting is essentially the where-and-when of your story.  It's Victorian England, or the recent future on a dying planet, or a modern day suburb.  It's the universe in which you are immersing your characters (and readers), and through which your are laying down your plot.  It's multi-dimensional; it looks, smells, sounds and tastes the way you decide it will. 

These three elements combine in a million different ways.  Your setting effects your characters (think of the difference between the Australian outback of the 1930s and the city of Tokyo in modern times): how they look, talk, etc.  This in turn effects your plot, because different characters will react to circumstances uniquely, and this in turn will change the course of events in your story!

We can take up each of these elements in several different blogs in the coming weeks.  I'm looking forward to re-exploring all of these vital pieces of your story-puzzle, and I hope you are too!

So, any preference as to which one we start with?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Writing: How Good Does It Have to Be?

As I re-read the title of this blog, it sounds like a joke. But I hear this from people all the time: "I really want to be a writer, but I just don't know if I'm good enough." And that begs the question: just how do we define "good." And how good is good enough?

Ask ten people how they define good writing, and they will probably give you ten different answers. One may be obsessed with grammar and punctuation ("You used approximately 4.5 adverbs per page; that's 2.75 more adverbs than recommended!"), one may talk esoterically about "art" (as in: "It's okay writing, but it's not art."), and one or two may simply say, "Anything that I can't put down is good writing to me!"

So what is Good Writing?

Now, this is a touchy subject, and to be honest I hesitated to tackle it here, because I'm afraid it will seem that I'm either defiling the hallowed rules of grammar or bruising the tender flesh of art. But I've done a lot of reading lately, from both published and unpublished writers, and I've come to realize something important:

"Good writing" is writing that creates an emotional connection with the reader.

And that's it. (Almost.)

Good writing makes you laugh or cry, makes your skin crawl, arouses your passion (for good or evil). It communicates something to you. It brings you into its particular universe. It makes you feel, and that's the primary mission of "good writing."

A long time ago I started to read a book which I found to be constructed of pretty bad writing. I won't go into detail, but I'm sure you've all read enough poorly-written books to know what I'm talking about! But even with its technical flaws, I found myself becoming absorbed by the story. I wanted to know what was going on. When I wasn't reading the book I was thinking about it, and when I finished it, it stayed in my mind for a long time afterward. And you know what I call that? Good writing! You know what I call the technical flaws? Bad editing. :~)

The way I see it, if this writer had had a better editor (or a better grammar teacher), this book could have been a best seller. Because it created an emotional connection. And the fact that it was able to have that affect in spite of poor use of language just highlights how deep that emotional connection was, and makes me realize anew that the author was indeed a very good writer.

Good writing doesn't have to be technically perfect. But it does have to be technically correct enough that it doesn't detract from the emotional connection.

What makes writing technically correct?

Here's what technically correct writing is made up of (in my humble opinion):

• Grammar and punctuation.

• Proper spelling (of course!).

• An understanding of - and comfort with - language. Not just for dialogue purposes, but also because the rhythm of language varies from age to age and from place to place.

• Story structure: the highs and lows, ebbs and flows of your story.

• Characterization: the hardcore techniques of bringing your people to life.

I'm sure I've left out a few things, there but those are the basics. All of these things are important: Grammar, punctuation, language – these are your tools, your instruments. Story structure and characterization – these are the beams and girders of the world you are building. But none of them should ever become more important to you than forging an emotional link with your readers.

So how do you go about creating an emotional connection? And how do you know when you've done it?

Here's what I think: How do you create an emotional connection? Start by feeling it yourself. Fall in love with your characters – even the bad guys (or especially the bad guys, as the case may be!). Make sure every part of your story fascinates you, and if it doesn't, change it! Because if you're not interested in any part of your story, I don't see how or why the reader would be!

And how do you know if you've actually achieved the emotional connection? Have someone read your work. Or several someones. They should be people you trust (especially when you start out!), people who aren't afraid to be honest. Are they "feeling it" when they read your story? No? Ask questions, figure out what's going wrong and change it. Yes? Well then, you've got something good going!

(Oh, this is very important: they should be people who enjoy the genre in which you're writing. I once had someone get very critical about my writing. Eventually I found out that this guy never read "women's books" and in fact hardly ever read fiction at all! So save yourself some time (and heartache) and don't give your romance novel to someone who hates romance novels, LOL!)

So what do you call Good Writing?

If you're still not sure that your writing is good, don't be afraid to indulge in a little self-examination. Just ask what you, yourself, consider to be good writing. Shakespeare? Okay, are you trying write like Shakespeare? No? Oh, you just want to make people feel the way you feel when you read Shakespeare?

Okay then, you have now established what kind of emotional connection you're trying to forge with your readers: the same kind old Will forged with you!  And that's a good place to start! Just remember, William Shakespeare didn't start out as an Immortal Poet. He didn't just pick up a quill pen one day and scribble rough winds do shake the darling buds of May on a piece of parchment. He honed his craft. He learned how to make art by making art. He learned by doing.

And I hope that this blog has made you feel like doing! :~) So quit reading, and go write. (You can start by leaving a comment, if you like!)

So how do YOU define good writing?