Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Perfect Character

In a perfect world, perfect people would skip about merrily. This isn’t a perfect world, however, and there are no perfect people. One pitfall to avoid in developing characters is the trap of making the ‘good guys’ always GOOD, and the bad guys always BAD.

The fact is, even good guys have bad habits, do the wrong thing at times, and make stupid decisions. And even a bad guy can have a soft spot, do things nice, etc. Human beings are way to complex to make it such a clear definition. In fact, in order to build a really great ‘bad guy’ giving his motives, and actions reason that would seem understandable to others if they were to look at it from ‘his point of view’ makes them even stronger as characters.

Another pitfall is to play out the story line the way the hero, or heroine would like it to be played. Being humans, we’d all like things to go our way… they rarely do however, and that’s what makes life (and stories) interesting.

Put the screws to your good guys. Make them work for the things they want. This is true, but even harder, in novellas, and I see too many examples of the ‘easy way’ taken in those. Treat them the same as any novel. The best way to bring out the character of your characters is to give them more to do than smile all the time.

Ah… the next point. Those little smiley tags.

“I just love what you did with that window.” She smiled.
“This is just a wreck!” he said smiling.

Give me a break, no one smiles as much as we have a tendency to make them do in print. Okay, I do, she said as her lips twisted into a wry smile.

Make those little emotion tags work for you. Wry smiles, twisted smiles, forehead-furrowing frowns, give all the emotions more impact than, she smiled, he frowned. Work your characters to their fullest. If he smiles, it better be a reasonable response. If his world is crashing down upon him, and he’s smiling, I’m not going to read the book any further, I’m going to call the psyche ward and have him committed.

What are some of the ways you make your characters come through in your stories? What little tricks do you use to make them come to life? How hard are you on those you love the most (your darlings)? Turn up the heat, and make them sweat… and don’t let them smile while you do it!


Bernita said...

Come to think of it, don't make much mention of my characters' smiling...
Do have a case where someone notes he'd never seem her soft mouth look so mean...

Erik Ivan James said...

Good advice, Tami. I agree that any inappropriate expression, such as a smile, is a turn-off and distraction.

Concerning dialogue tags, I attempt to use them as little as possible and attempt to keep them as short as possible. Personally, I prefer the very basic "he said/she said" tags. I try very hard to establish mood, attitude, reaction, etc. by related other text. To me, if the overall scene is written well, the speaker and their immediate image should be generally obvious.

EA Monroe said...

Right when one of my characters think they are going to win the golden prize -- Wham! Too good and they are too "vanilla." The bad guys often glitter and the good guy thinks he's becoming as bad as the Bad Boys are. Now, a bad guy usually doesn't know he's a bad guy, does he?

As a writer I always try to study and observe human nature, Psychology 101. What makes us do, say, and want the things we do? Somtimes it's instinct, conditioning, emotional. How do we get what we want and who's going to snatch it away? Yeah, whatcha gonna do about it?!

I try to use "Stimulus & Response" and Scene (goal, conflict, disaster) & Sequel (reaction, dilemma, decision). Jack Bickham has a great book on this subject.

I also try to work around the "he/she asked" tags, too.

You nailed it with,"look at it from 'his point of view.'" Wrap yourself in your character's skin; feel, see, hear, smell. Okay, I don't want to read "Jack heard a dog bark," or "Jack saw a dog," or Jack felt like barfing, or "Jack smelled roses," either.

Okay, that's enough rant from me. Where do you keep the Excedrins?

Anonymous said...

It's Cup again. This is my umpteenth attempt at making this reply a reasonable length and it is still too freaking long. >.<

One pitfall to avoid in developing characters is the trap of making the ‘good guys’ always GOOD, and the bad guys always BAD.

In one of my WIP's a character, employed as an assassin, develops a drinking problem and blindly follows his orders. Even when the other assassins start wondering if what they are doing really is for the betterment of society, he's the one who sticks to the script of "doing his job". There's also a point where I expect the reader will want to strangle me over him killing someone who he could have easily let walk away. Written this way he sounds like a mindless drone, but he's not. He's relinquished himself to his fate in life, given into the conditioning he's been fed since he was 10 and I hope that later in the story he'll reach a breaking point. As of right now, I have no idea which side he'll pick when it comes time for "the big battle".

What little tricks do you use to make them come to life?

Personality quirks or interests that the reader can relate to (a sweet tooth, collecting something, hobbies, etc).

When I start to build a character, I start with a personality type. Beginning with the basics of "type A" or "type B" and then I add flavorings. Do they have abandonment issues? Do they have a sense of black and white justice? Are they in love with the idea of being in love? Are the sexually promiscuous? Are they virgins at a late age? Do they have sexual hang-ups? Do they have a superiority or inferiority complex? THEN, I figure out their story. Why do they have abandonment issues? Why are they the way they are and what are they going to do with their lives considering the baggage they already have?

Sometimes my story ideas start with a plot idea, but more often than not they start with a character idea, scene idea, or a line and I have to work outwards to figure out what led up to the scene and what comes after. My assassin WIP started with the lines: "I own you." and "That's right, [name X], show them your true self." At the time I had no freaking clue what X's name was, true self was or why he'd want to hide it. I also had no clue what would lead up to some "owning" someone else (as side from yet one more sex-slave story which I don't want to write.).

Needless to say my plot lines tend to be character driven plots as opposed to "and then this happens" plots – at least that's how I see it. I've been told otherwise, but I still see it as character driven.

How hard are you on those you love the most?

I'm extremely hard on my assassin character perhaps too hard. Of course that story is meant to rip the reader's heart out. I'd like to see some kind of happy ending, but I'm not counting on it.

smile for the camera

My characters who smile a bit too much are supposed to make the reader wonder why they smile like they do. Are they really that cheery? Are they that disconnected with reality? Is it an emotional mask they wear in hopes of feeling it on the inside? Is it rooted in labeling theory and they are trying to be what is expected of them? Those characters really should be sent off a psyche ward, but I'm not that merciful.

Therapy for one of my boys? Surely, you jest...

One of my assassins visits the graves of his fallen comrades. I fill the reader in on his back story as he pays his respects. A defective little boy consistently rejected by potential families that would visit his orphanage. As well as his first love being a repaired (no longer broken and defective) little bird inside a cuckoo clock.

At the end of the scene he dries his eyes and bears "a smile that took way too much effort". Why would he smile? That's his mask. He's the hopeful, happy-go-lucky one who likes to blow things up. If he didn't smile he'd risk breaking other people's trust in and acceptance of the public persona he's carefully crafted to hide his real "defective" nature.

His love interest, a man who has a hard time differentiating between fantasy and reality, wants behind the mask and as they get closer the mask gets thicker. I honestly don't know if those two will make it beyond "unresolved sexual tension".

The main assassin has to kill his own lover fairly early in the story which leaves him in the clutches of the man who's been screwing with his head for years.

Someone call a therapist and order a bulk pack of lithium. These boys are going to have some serious needs by the time I'm done with them.

MissWrite said...

"Someone call a therapist and order a bulk pack of lithium. These boys are going to have some serious needs by the time I'm done with them."

Ah, but how wonderful that is!

Yes, it's obvious that a writer who puts serious thought into why characters may smile all the time can break the 'rule' (it's not a rule really, it's more of a guideline, she says in her best piratesque imitation). But in making determinations, and reasonings, you have staid the rule as well.

...All things for a purpose.

Bless your heart, Cupcake. You are going to be a blast and a half to work with!

Anonymous said...

The perfect character must not be perfect at all... I agree, they must have flaws in order to be believable.
The new story I'm penning right now has such a variety of characters and it's been really fun making them up. Even the hero enters the novel in such a bad shape (recently widowed a baby-step away from suicidal! At least he doesn't smoke. lol