Posts Tagged characterisation
‘How could I make these characters living and lovable people?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nigel Featherstone
My guest this week says he has simple requirements of a good story: he wants to be moved. And so when he writes he seeks to do the same. But he was struggling to get inside the skin of the mother-son duo in his latest novella I’m Ready Now – until some songs took him by surprise. He is Nigel Featherstone, an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, creative journalist and founder of an online literary journal – and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?
The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.
Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.
(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)
Not just novice writers
But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.
So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?
Because we like it that way
For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.
The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.
Stories are not like life
So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.
With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.
1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.
2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.
Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.
Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?
Some scenes crackle off the page as we write them. Others fill logical gaps or give us information, but they can be the dullest scenes to write. How can we liven them up?
I’m a big fan of giving scenes in novels a purpose, but in some manuscripts I come across scenes that are all purpose and no soul. I can see the writer thinking – ho-hum, here’s where I introduce the main character’s parents over tea, here’s where they’ve got to be in the car going somewhere, here’s where he explains a set-up that we need or nothing else will make sense. The writer’s weariness slumps off the page.
But elsewhere in the novel, the tension is beautifully done, the characters spring into three dimensions as living, feeling people, with things to hide, issues that are at odds with some of the other people.
Wow, what just happened? It’s as if the book has come alive.
No. The writer has come alive.
The reader knows you were bored
When I point out that some of their scenes were flat, the writer usually says they had a hard time writing them. But, they say, I have to get those bits in, don’t I?
They’re right in a way. For a story to make sense you do have to convey a certain amount of information, background, and there are logical gaps you have to bridge.
But you don’t need any scene that you’re bored by. Because the reader can tell your heart wasn’t in it.
What I do
When I get to a scene that makes me feel this way, I rethink. How can I get my obligatory information across in a way that entertains me? I play a few improv games to make the dialogue snap, I mess around with the location or other things the characters can do until I hit on something that makes it all wake up. (You’ll find some of them in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence).
Or make them say the opposite
Another thing you can do if you have an obligatory conversation is make the characters say the opposite of what they needed to say.
In Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, there’s a scene where the hero, Richard Hannay, is in a hotel room with the woman he’s handcuffed to. They’re lying on the bed and she’s obviously going to ask him if he’s really a murderer. And he’s got to explain. I was keen to see how the writers would tackle this because -
1 – we’re going to get a lot of explanation
2 – it’s all stuff we’ve already seen, yet he obviously has to tell her.
How in holy were they going to keep us interested?
Here, roughly remembered and greatly truncated because I didn’t think to write it down at the time, is how that bit of the dialogue went:
She: I’ve been told murderers have terrible dreams.
He: Only at first. Got over that a long time ago. When I first took to crime,
I was quite squeamish about it….
She: How did you start?
He: Quite a small way, like most of us. Pilfering pennies from other children’s lockers at school… a little pocket picking, a spot of car pinching… Killed my first man … In years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Madame Tussaud’s and point me out.
She: Which section?
He: It’s early to say. I’m still young … You’ll point me out and say, “if I were to tell you how matey I once was with that gentleman, you’d be… “
And so on. He didn’t explain how innocent he was. He went ludicrously over the top and claimed he was on his way to being the grand-moff master-criminal. Far from being a plodding piece of exposition, it’s a wonderful character piece that makes the characters trust each other a little more.
In a good story we’re interested in every scene. So every time you find yourself wearily thinking ‘I’ve got to get this bit in’ or ‘they have to go here or say this’ wait, think and brainstorm. Turn off the autopilot and find a way to write it that excites you.
Do you have any tips for obligatory scenes? Or examples of scenes where writers have found a great way to liven them up? Share in the comments!
Most writers are aware that if their main character is going to change, they have to set them up as incomplete, or flawed, or in need of something.
But I see a lot of manuscripts where they’ve gone too far. The MC is so abject, feeble, whiney, wussy, miserable, dysfunctional or even bonkers it’s a wonder they ever acquired a bipedal stance.
And that usually makes them hard to tolerate.
First impressions count
In the first few pages of a book, we’re deciding if we want to spend time with the characters. Although flaws can definitely be humanising and endearing, creating a character like this is such a fine balance. If they’re too draining, we’ll quietly put the book down.
Yes, there probably are people like this in real life. But do you seek them out? Be honest now. You let voicemail take their call.
The faithful friend solution
Often the writer senses the character is not likable enough. So they give them a faithful friend who is always looking after them, and hope this persuades the reader that something about them is adorable.
This friend has endless patience for the MC’s feebleness, unreliability and bad behaviour. They may even give a tough-love pep-talk from time to time. Personally I either want them to take centre stage as they have the more interesting life, or I want to give them a slap too.
But flawed, damaged, incomplete characters can be quintessential drivers for a good story. So how do you build them?
Don’t make the flawed character helpless.
Ask yourself: how do they cope? Presumably they need to earn a living, manage a family or keep up with schoolwork. Even people with quite serious problems manage a juggling act where they keep it under control – just about.
Show that. Perhaps they are keeping a high-powered job in spite of being blitzed on cocaine. Or pouring Darjeeling demurely at the vicar’s tea party while being tormented by horned demons. Or playing the romantic lead in a drama despite being abused by their real-life husband. Or trying to please their parents who want them to be accountants, but sneaking off to circus practice because that’s where their heart is.
People who really have problems paper over the cracks and carry on as if life is normal. Readers love to spot the holes – and they love the plucky, the brave, the fighters. Make them show their hero qualities by what they are already having to cope with – and the reader will love them.
Thank you, Freya Hartas, for the pictures – more of her work can be found at her fab blog Carl Has The Funk
Who are your favourite flawed characters?
I’m back at Victoria Mixon’s for the second part of our weekly editor chats. Last week we hammered out plot. Today the subject is characters. We discussed techniques for developing characters, what makes a character with dignity and depth, whether to use all your research – and my dislike of what some of you call plaid and what I call tartan.
Hey, we’re all allowed unreasonable quirks. Take a highland fling over to Victoria’s blog and see what it’s all about… Thank you, Lee Carson, for the picture…
Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)
Today: Did You Hear About The Morgans?
Did You Hear About The Morgans? features a couple from New York who are separating. Out one evening to discuss their divorce, they witness a crime and are forced to go to a safe house, in a tiny town hundreds of miles away from the city.
This sounds like a great concept –danger, soul-searching, an unsophisticated town to put the New Yorkers back in touch with what really matters.
Writing sin 1: story delivers on expectations only superficially and not deeply
Did You Hear About The Morgans? delivers on none of the promises, except in the most mechanical way. There are a number of mishaps and small-town oddities, but they seem to operate only to set up superficial and unsatisfying pratfalls later.
There are nominal attempts to get the Morgans involved in the community – Mrs Morgan, who is a real estate agent, helps the doctor to sell his house, and Mr Morgan, a lawyer, helps an ornery old grump to write a will. None of these have payoffs later, or are particularly funny, or – most important – challenge the characters at any personal level. They seem to have been put in only to show that the Morgans had jobs, and to make the community like them. But in a story like this we want the change to be the other way round – the main characters have to grow to like the community and thus have discovered some new values.
Taking the Morgans out of New York didn’t force them to act in new ways, so there was nothing gained by doing it. All it seems to mean to them is that they miss their lattes, vegetarian restaurants and the internet. This story is partly a fish out of water scenario – and should be more than simply a way to force characters to spend time together. The setting should be instrumental in the characters’ change.
Writing sin 2: wooden characters
This is the central problem. The main characters are wooden. They never discover anything about themselves. It’s a story about a reconciled relationship, but we never see how the two Morgans relate to each other now, what they were like at the start, what had gone bad and how it changed.
There are hints at fertility problems and conflict about starting a family, but these look as if they have been flung in in a desperate attempt to press emotional hot keys, rather than being thought through.
The characters also don’t live up to the professions the writers gave them. Mrs Morgan ran a company so famous that she was on the cover of a glossy magazine. Mr was a high-powered lawyer. They should have had some corresponding personality traits, such as tenacity, ruthlessness and ingenuity. When people like that are in conflict with each other, particularly emotional conflict, they should become ugly. It looked like nobody wanted to risk making the Morgans a bit nasty. This misses the point of a story like this. If they don’t bring nasty traits out in each other at the start, they have no way to mellow at the end.
Writing sin 3: changing the story direction without putting enough work into the new elements This is just a guess, but it looks to me as though Did You Hear About The Morgans? started life as a thriller. Probably a lot of that material was taken out, but the thriller elements that remain (including how the hitman tracks them) are the best honed and have obviously had multiple drafts.
Also, the supporting cast are far better realised than the main characters. Although they have less screen time, each of them gives us a sense of a real person with aims, hobbies and troubles – conspicuously lacking in the main characters.
It looks like the film was rewritten in a hurry, but nobody paid any attention to working through the main characters properly.
Tomorrow: Sherlock Holmes