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.
Writing is full of potential ‘dump’ areas. The back story dump, which I talked about last week. The info-dump, aka exposition. And this week, I came across a novel that was wearing its themes rather dumpishly.
When this author wanted to alert us to one of her themes, the characters had a chat about it. Or it was on a TV programme they were watching. Or in the college lecture they’d gone to. So far in this book we’ve had the failure of language 101, the women’s movement 101 and male/female stereotypes 101. (And this isn’t, by the way, one of my clients’ WIP manuscripts. It’s a published literary novel.)
There’s nothing wrong with the odd mention of a theme here or there, of course. After all, characters have got to talk about/watch/learn/be interested in something. A line or two won’t hurt, to give flavour here and there. So long as you don’t stop the action for half a page while you deliver a lecture. (And some writers do it for far longer.)
Bring theme to life
If you feel the need to shake your resonances, you have to do a bit more than dump an essay on the reader. Theme shouldn’t come from what the characters intellectually talk about, but from what they feel. The kind of problems that cause trouble for them. Or the way everyone in the universe of the novel behaves. Then the themes become tangible influences in the novel.
So how do you create this feeling?
Sub-plots, my friends
One of the best ways is with sub-plots. Your main plot may examine the theme from one angle; if your sub-plot comes at it another way, that makes the reader more aware of it as a force in the world of your story.
Shakespeare, as we might expect, knew how to make a theme sing for its supper. Take King Lear. In the main plot the king is abdicating and splitting up his kingdom, and trusts the wrong children while wronging the one who is truly decent. In the sub-plot, an illegitimate son (treated badly by everyone from the day he was born) schemes to get his brother disinherited because he feels he deserves his chance. Yes, from time to time the characters deliver speeches about thankless children and unnatural behaviour, but they are provoked by what is what is happening to them. (You can find out more about using sub-plots in my book, Nail Your Novel.)
Themes tend to be intellectual concepts. To make them work in a novel, you have to bring them to life. Not dump them in and constipate your story. I dare you to tweet that line.
Thanks for the picture, Marco/Zak on Flickr
How are you bringing themes alive in your novel? Share in the comments!
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…