One of my favorite performers, Christine Lavin, does a song called “The Shopping Cart of Love: The Play,” in which she says of a store manager:
He would just sit in the back room every day, reading the dictionary and then taking the
“It pays to increase your word power” test in Readers Digest
This has nothing to do with the song but since it’s
a play I did a little character development.
(full lyrics here)
Well, the song doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my blog, but since she’s so awesome, I decided that using this as a lead in to talking about character development might entice you to check her out. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
You’re back? Okay then, let’s discuss characters, viewpoints and their development. If you took my Writer’s Digest webinar on writing science fiction, fantasy and the paranormal last year, this is probably going to sound familiar, but it will be all new to everyone else.
Here are some things to consider in creating your main character. (Note that I don’t say “hero” or “heroine,” because sometimes, like in the movie Despicable Me, the terms don’t really apply…at least not at first.)
Is your character an Insider or Outsider: are they already fully immersed in the world or is the reader becoming aware along with the character? Sometimes the best way to introduce a reader to the world of the weird is to introduce the protagonist to it, so that he or she begins at the same level of knowledge, basically, as the reader. Take Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series. Her main character is more or less an everyman. Everywoman anyway. She’s a graduate student—exams, roommate, jeans, t-shirts, junk-food addiction, particularly under stress—until she’s attacked by one vampire and rescued by another, though the only way to accomplish that is to complete her transformation. In the world Chloe has created, becoming a vampire isn’t as simple as waking from the dead. It’s extremely political and practically feudal in its code, set down in a multi-volume Canon riddled with rules the heroine often learns by the breaking of them. Alternately, it can be intriguing simply to launch your reader into the fictional world right from the beginning, as Kalayna Price does in Grave Witch, “The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn’t – particularly when we crossed paths on the job.” Here, the heroine has grown up with her abilities, and the reader accepts them just as the protagonist does, taking them in stride.
Reliable or Unreliable Narrator: a reliable narrator is most traditional. This is someone whose observations we trust. An unreliable narrator is often an anti-hero, someone who may have a reason to twist the facts presented. The best example I can provide of the latter is Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David. It’s fascinating, because the reader is an active participant in the narrative, constantly analyzing what’s said to get to the truth beyond the words.
Is this someone you can torture? I know, this sounds crazy, but this is one I learned from experience. Part of the reason you have to give your characters flaws, aside from the fact that we all have them, and it makes your characters more realistic, is that it gives you something less than noble about them that you can hang onto when you’re putting them through the meatgrinder that is fate. I’m completely serious here. If your character is too beloved or too much like you, you’re going to have a very difficult time carrying through with the conflict. You’ll want to protect them, and therefore demolish any tension almost before it’s begun to build. I’ve seen it time and again, along with overuse of adjectives and exposition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first character I wrote who really spoke to people was a teen fashionista I took from chic to eek by vamping her out and taking away all her tanning options. No reflection, no way to fix her hair and make-up…her own personal version of hell. Yes, she was fun to torture…for me and for the reader as well. But she also had to be capable of, as she says, putting on her big-girl panties to deal with it, which brings me to my next comment….
Hidden strengths: In Joss Whedon’s Firefly, very bad man Adelai Niska says that during torture you meet the true person. In a novel, your action tends to be a bit larger than life, unless your lives are much more exciting than mine, so characters tend to be pushed beyond normal endurance. They’ll either break or find hidden strengths that allow them to survive and win the day. Breaking is obviously the less heroic choice. But it’s by distilling your characters in the crucible of fate that you come to their essence.
What POV will best suit your character’s voice? There are really only two acceptable options, since omniscient narration doesn’t tend to appeal to modern readers. (That’s narration where events are relayed from some external perspective, as if it’s being watched and not lived. It’s very distancing and doesn’t provide any lens through which we can view the world or emotional impact, because nothing is at stake for the teller of the tale.)
The first person, or the “I” perspective, is popular these days, especially in urban fantasy. It can be very intimate, but it can also be limiting, since it’s best (though not exclusively) used in single point of view narratives. Caveat here: be careful that it doesn’t sound like your character is speaking directly to the reader. A reader wants to disappear into a book and live vicariously alongside the characters, which isn’t possible when we’re aware of ourselves. Also, one person can’t ever truly know what’s going on in someone else’s head, so while you can give the reader cues in dialogue, expression and body language, what we can learn will be limited and must be convincing.
Third person is perhaps the most commonly used. This is the “he” or “she” perspective, where we’re still in a particular character’s head at any given moment, but which character may change with a chapter or section break. There are caveats here too. If you choose to write from more than one perspective, it’s important for each voice to sound truly distinctive so that the reader doesn’t forget even for a second who they’re following. Also, even with the ability to tell a tale from multiple viewpoints, you’ll probably want to limit the number of POV characters, lest the book become too unwieldy and a reader lose the thread of one character’s story while we’re tied up with another.
I’ve seen books where the author goes back over the same scene from more than one character’s perspective. This can be revealing, even intriguing, but beware losing the reader as you lose your forward momentum.
There’s so much more to discuss here, but it appears I’ve gone on long enough. Why don’t you readers talk amongst yourselves? What haven’t I touched on that you want to know about? What do you like as readers? As writers? What voices or characters have you found to be the most distinctive? Inquiring minds want to know.
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