Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to Create Dull, Lifeless Characters, Or What Not To Do

Ok, my split personality disorder has subsided somewhat, mainly because I've finished editing a big chunk of Cloudland. I'm not actually done editing, period, but I'm taking a little break while my editor and I re-group.

Anyway, I now have the time (and attention) to write a little bit about characters, as I had promised.

One of the questions I often get has to do with characters. There are a lot of variations, but it goes something like: "How do you create three-dimensional, compelling, and interesting people, instead of boring flat unbelievable cardboard automatons?"

Excellent question.

To tell you the truth, I didn't know the answer to that question for a long time. An embarrassingly long time, actually. When I was writing plays, I used to just come up with ideas for characters, figure out the general details (age, appearance, career, etc), and then I would go on my merry way and, you know, write, like I was supposed to. Because only losers plan stuff, obviously.

You'll be shocked to learn that this didn't work very well. Not matter what I was writing, I would inevitably end up sitting in front of my computer, tearing out great fistfuls of my hair, and swearing at my characters (yes, out loud, like a crazy person), because they wouldn't do what I wanted them to do. I had fantastic ideas about where to take the story, but these people I had created would NOT cooperate for love or money. We would have frustrating arguments that would end with me throwing my hands in the air and deleting chunks of text, and writing more chunks, then deleting those and writing more, and so on, until I managed by pure stupid luck to write myself out of the corner I was in, and move on with the story.

Just as a side note, I now know that the fact that I was fighting with them instead of just making them do what I wanted (which is an option, by the way; it's called Bad Writing), was a good thing. It meant that I was forcing myself to create real, believable people, instead of robots. As a TOTAL side note, or really a side-track, this is one of the reasons I disliked The Grapes of Wrath; I felt as if Steinbeck was making his characters do things they really probably wouldn't do, because it made a better story. I felt the same way about The Memory Keeper's Daughter. I realize many of you may disagree with me, which is great, actually. Leave a comment and we can debate about it.

Anyway. Fun though that whole fighting thing was, let's call that crazy approach What Not To Do, shall we? So, what do you do, instead?

Another great question, and when I started working on my first novel, I had absolutely not one damn clue. So I did what writers do: I researched (incidentally, research is a great way to procrastinate). I went down to my local library and looked for books on writing, and found a book called Write Away, by British mystery novelist Elizabeth George. For those who don't know her, she's the highly successful author of the Inspector Lynley series, among others.

I have a confession, here. I didn't read the whole book, just a few pertinent bits. Sorry, Elizabeth.

At any rate, George has this whole process for conceiving, planning, and writing a novel down pat (something I think you pick up when you are a prolific mystery writer), one of which is to start with your characters, instead of starting with the story. You can and should have your seed, but before you build this glorious plot, build characters who will interact with it first.

Well, duh, right? Apparently not, since I hadn't figured that out on my own.

Ok, this is now a very long post. Before you all doze off, I'll end here - and I'll expand on how George recommends building those characters, and how I used her advice when I was writing Cloudland, next week.

In the meantime, leave comments and tell me why I'm wrong about Steinbeck :)

1 comment:

  1. If only you were wrong about Steinbeck....