Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Character Confessions

Even though November is over, I have continued to work on my NaNo novel. As the work progresses, I have discovered (to my great surprise) that I have developed a rather poorly veiled crush on the character who is my principal Bad Guy.

This is quite unlike me. And though I like him -- a lot -- it doesn't stop me from writing down the horrible, despicable things that he has to do in order to move the story forward. It does, however, make me come up with a host of interesting ways to explain his bad behavior.

I must confess, this little obsession of mine has caused me to give the guy far more "screen time" than I had intended. It made me explore his motivations, define his drives, and flesh out his history more than I would have thought necessary had he been content to simply adhere to his original purpose in the story. My liking him has made him more real to me. Which, by necessity, forced me to make him more interesting in print.

It's been a good thing. I'm wondering how to make myself crush on all my major players...

This past week, I have been privy to several writers' "character confessions."

One lamented that the character she had intended for her protagonist ended up rubbing readers the wrong way. Without exception, all thought he was an "arrogant, manipulative, ass." This works well for House, but wasn't exactly what she was going for...

Several writers I've worked with lately have admitted that they don't know enough about their characters to know what they like, don't like, want, or work for. They know their characters' pasts and have plans for their futures -- but they don't know who these people are. Yet...

One writer identifies so strongly with her (fictitious) character, that she blurs pronouns when talks about her. "She" becomes "I," and then critique becomes dicey...

One male writer in the Writer's Practicum I facilitate consistently has difficulty creating real, believable females. He has a good grasp of plot and story, and a decent ear for dialogue -- as long as everyone involved has a "Y" chromosome. As soon as he introduces a female character, he abandons craft and clings to cliche. We're working on it...

Then there was the e-mail exchange with a young writer I coach, in which we discussed the importance of inhabiting the characters we create so they are well-rounded and real to us. He recognized his own shortcomings in being able to write from a female point of view:

"...actually, I always wonder about my female characters until a female reads them, and then I'm... relieved, but also a tiny bit worried about myself -- and what Dad would say if he saw the words "Well, he was really cute" typed by my hand as I was typing them. That sort of thing..."

I told him I was going to steal his confession for a post on the subject of characters.

We can get into trouble in a hundred different ways when we people our prose. Liking our creations too much can be as bad as not liking them.

One of the worst pitfalls is not knowing them. They become thinly veiled, poorly drawn caricatures of us (or people we think we know). Another, equally dangerous, pitfall is projecting ourselves onto them. This only results in our shielding them and not allowing them to grow into fully-realized characters.

The first step, I believe, is in recognizing our shortcomings. Sometimes identifying a fault or a weakness is all it takes to overcome it.

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