How to Write: Lesson 5
Happy New Year fellow webizens. We have returned to a blisteringly cold 2018, at least up in my neck of the woods. Hopefully all your vacations and family time was well spent. With any luck you even have some new year resolutions that you might actually keep this time. Or not. That’s okay too.
We’re just going to jump back into those writing lessons because we’ve had such a long time away from them. And I know you’re just dying to get a bit more insight into that creative process. Maybe you can pick up a few tips too. I’d love to know if my How to series helped anyone with their fiction.
We’ve kind of been discussing so far a lot of preparation work for writing but there hasn’t been a whole lot of time spent on technique. Well, that’s about to change this day. Because that’s what the new year is for: changes!
Prior I talked about important components of different storytelling. But, barring some truly weird and experimental fiction, there is one constant regardless of your stripes or interests as an author. There is but one element of every story that is universal and, if my psychology background is going to bias, perhaps the whole reason we tell stories in the first place. While we love fantastic locations and daring adventures, the thing that really grips us and keeps the pages turning are the people in our stories. For, without people, you mostly have a travel documentary. And even those focus a lot on local travel or the experiences of the traveller nowadays and not just on the old buildings or swamps they’re stepping into.
Truly, characters are the vessel in which we transport our readers through our narratives. I’m sure all of us can think of those stories that simply didn’t resonate with us. Sure, they might have been creative. They may have even contained really flowery prose. But can you think of many stories which had really bad characters that you could finish?
I certainly know when I’m listening to people’s criticisms, the principle issue almost always revolves around the characters. Whether that be they’re too shallow. Or maybe they’re too perfect. Perhaps they’re too unbelievable. There’s a seemingly fine line for characters that plays directly into an important concept called the Suspension of Disbelief.
See, no one is confused or surprised that a work of fiction they’re reading is… well… fake. This is a self-evident statement but it actually carries a lot of important consequences with it. Think back to those stories that you love. You know how you can just hear the characters? You can often see the locations or feel the action? You despair when they despair. You cheer when they triumph. You are devastated when they kill off your favourite doctor. Maybe when you finish and put it down, the story simply occupies your mind and you’re left in an aimless fugue wishing you could go back and experience that wonder and excitement.
When a story is successful, we the readers are happy to suspend our disbelief and belief in the actions, characters and emotions as though they are real and worthy of our time. There’s an unspoken contract between reader and author. The reader is willing to ignore the fact that they’re reading ink on a page or pixels on the screen and you, the writer, is going to transport them on a fantastic journey.
But you can’t let them see the scaffolding of your rides or the pneumatic machinery of your displays. You can’t draw attention to the fact that you are merely composing words on a page to them. It’s your duty to not betray their sense of acceptance. You want your reader to feel the action is real whether that action involves fire breathing dragons, ghosts from the pale or cybernetic clones on murderous rampages. Literature is not real life and even the most mundane story is going to be far more ordered and directed than our daily lives.
Our readers are, bless their hearts, willing to let a lot pass. But the one thing that simply won’t fly are awful characters. We can accept alternate dimensions, dream powered magic and talking animals. We won’t accept that ditsy character who flunked out of high school to become a wandering bohemian somehow knowing advanced astrophysics and is capable of diffusing a ticking nuclear warhead.
We need to write consistent, believable characters. This also means we need well-rounded and interesting characters to write about.
Creating characters is a pretty big topic and obviously not something that can be covered in a lesson. But we’ll lay the groundwork for creating compelling protagonists that your readers want to know more about.
There are, of course, a few basic rules that should be followed. Your character should be consistent. If you introduce your protagonist, Wilhelmina, and say she’s a bit of a klutz, then don’t turn around and have her earn a standing ovation when she steps in to cover for the lead ballerina. There are enough examples in media where characters we know suddenly behave opposite to how we’ve come to expect them. This isn’t to say your characters can’t sometimes act out-of-character but those should be rare occurrences that can, ultimately, be explained by their prior beliefs or actions. A well mannered, law abiding citizen doesn’t just turn around and start mugging old ladies for no reason.
Consistency, while being obvious, is much harder than it seems. This is a truth that isn’t apparent until you start writing. It’s easy as a reader to notice when characters start acting irrationally. But as a writer, these mistakes can sneak in for many reasons. One, you might not have conceived your character quite as completely when you started and so you don’t know how they would react in different circumstances. Two, as a writer, you’re balancing more than just character consistency when you’re writing. You’re also trying to maintain tone, express theme, pace the narration and formulate a plot. You also will have a whole medley of characters entering your story and, of course, they all have to come across as believable entities in their own right!
It’s a hard thing to get right but an easy to spot error.
There are, of course, techniques you can develop to strengthen your characters. When writing my first few novels, I actually spent a lot of prep time “learning” my main actors. I wrote brief snippets and scenes, little vignettes that would never be incorporated into the story, that would examine and test the characters in different ways. In this way I could find the “voice” of these characters so they could express themselves differently than their fellows. I remember in one of my writing classes doing an exercise where you wrote a brief description of the contents of your character’s pockets to get a sense of what they felt was important enough to them to keep close by at all times. This is very much in the same vein but isn’t just devoted to description but also their speech patterns and problem solving.
These character sketches are valuable resources at the start of your novel, especially if you have an ensemble cast. It gives you some time to test different elements of your writing style and gives you a brief window into your characters’ psyches. Even better, you can use these vignettes to reference so you can remember how your characters act and think. Many times they’re great for refocusing your attention and reminding you of the important details of their personality while your story progresses.
They don’t have to be long. Think around three pages. I find focusing on an event or conflict either important to the character or that encapsulates their personality is great subject matter for these snippets. For Thyre, my character snippet on Jarret, the soldier, focused on the mission which left him with a limp. It focused on his experiences fighting in the jungle and his thoughts and motivations for joining the army in the first place. It covered both a personally pivotal moment in his life that would directly impact his personality with the story as well as detail the foreign struggles and conflict which shaped the Empire abroad.
And the best part of these snippets? They aren’t meant for public consumption. You don’t need to worry whether they make sense. You don’t even need to fret about making a coherent story with a defined beginning, middle and end. They do, however, give you more time with the characters that your readers won’t have and consequently make you the expert on them because of that experience.
They also make for a great proof of concept and sometimes you may even catch some issues early that could trip up your story later if not changed.
So take some time and get a little personal and intimate with the people of your book. They’re your confidantes. They’re your closest friends. They are your family and you should know as much about them as you possible can.