Posts Tagged likable characters
Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’
Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.
Dickens and du Maurier
Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.
At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.
Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.
Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.
A terrible memory for names
How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.
Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)
Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)
- Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
- If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
- Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
- As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.
Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe
This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.
This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.
But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.
In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.
No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.
And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.
To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.
This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.
I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.
Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.
But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.
You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.
Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.
If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is.
If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.
We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.
But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.
I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).
Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.
The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.
Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.
It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.
There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.
We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.
In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.
The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.
Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.
If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.
I was looking at a thriller script. It featured police officers protecting witnesses. There’s a scene where one of the MCs is sitting in the car reading Marvel comics instead of watching the house they’re in. One of the other officers says to him ‘can’t you act professionally?’. The comic-reading MC says ‘when I’m put in the front car I’ll act like a pro’. The screenplay is full of bickering like this.
Can we really believe that anyone who has a job would behave this way? Much less someone who has had to go through police selection and training. The writer wanted him to be a likable maverick, frustrated that he’s getting nowhere. But instead of empathizing with him, we think he’s an unbelievable jerk.
This is a problem I see quite often – in novels as well as screenplays. The character is frustrated with a ‘normal’ life. Usually that’s a rich seam to mine because readers find plenty of frustrations in their own lives and will understand them. But the writer shows them bickering, sniping, slacking off and being superior. They toss aside the dull report they’re supposed to be writing and they read scriptwriting manuals instead. They tell their colleagues how boring the company is. They act like they’re trying to get sacked because they really want to join a rock band.
This is not how people in frustrating jobs really behave. Even when they are dreaming of something better.
Ricky Gervais got it right in The Office. And Richard Yates has frustrating office life down to a T in Revolutionary Road.
Most of these characters hate their jobs. But they find ways to put up with it. They genuinely try to hide their frustrations and resentments, except with a few trusted people. Perhaps a collusive comment to an equally frazzled colleague at the water cooler; or letting off steam in the pub. Even then they may not dare expose their discontent fully – to other people or even to themselves.
Most people in frustrating jobs don’t bicker with their colleagues. They muddle along with them. They might even jolly each other through so it’s not so bad.
This is the key. Because these characters care about keeping the job. And that’s what makes their lives so frustrating. It’s why they don’t swagger around with an attitude that says ‘I’m a maverick and the rest of you are fools’. That version is the fantasy of a writer who’s been working on their own in Writerland for years and mixing only with other writers with the same lifestyle. (It’s possibly also why it has taken many writers so long to feature things that the rest of the world have had for years – like mobile phones.)
A frustrating life is an emotional state – usually a complex trap that the character is colluding with and has tangled feelings about. If it is being used to engage the reader’s sympathies, it needs to be presented with understanding, not superiority.