Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 5 - Revealing questions

In many cases, if you want to know about someone, you ask them questions and listen to their answers. Most people interview each other when they first meet. They get the basics, like names and professions. They may spur conversation with a compliment (love that necklace) or by mentioning an observation (sports/university logos on clothing, an accent).

And, if you have tuned your perceptions, you pay attention to the tone of the replies, the facial expressions, the hesitations, and the body language. You also take into account the context -- when and where you are asking and who else is around.

Interviewing characters is also a good way to get to know them. You can ask standard questions, and I've offered some "tell me about" interview prompts in a previous post. I'll add to that list here, but first I'd like to tie things up for the Bonding With Your Story's Characters series.

Throughout, I've said to know characters is to connect with them. In real life, you know people by what they do and say (and what they don't do and say). That means listening, watching, questioning, researching (through others and through artifacts, including online files), working with them and asking them questions.

If your subjects are actual living people, you probably can do all of these (with some exceptions for inaccessible celebrities). If your models are deceased, you can only research them.

If your characters are based on real people, they can be fictionalized, which may open up everything. It isn't unusual for me to end up listening to and observing my characters (whether I like it or not), and I understand this is common for a lot of fiction writers, once they get some understanding of their subjects. Working with characters was covered briefly in previous posts in this series. That takes an active suspension of disbelief and a developed and disciplined imagination.

If your characters are not based on real people, you can't research them directly, but you can dig into the lives of real people to get answers and examples. And then it is up to you to integrate them into the whole character in a credible way.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is what the characters are thinking and what they are aware of. With real people, we may make assumptions about these, but we never really know what's going on in their minds. With fictional characters, the potential for absolute answers is there, and it is one of the joys of fiction to get perspectives that we can't access in real life.

Since I wrote the "tell me about" post two years ago, I've come up with some additional questions I value. Pick out a character, sit down with her in a coffee shop, and see if any of these questions get you anywhere:

What do you, character, need/want?
What is your biggest flaw (on the Seven Deadly Sins level)? When have you demonstrated it?
Why are you appealing? When have you demonstrated this?
Even if you don't know your family, what is your family role in the story? (This is especially valuable to find out when putting together characters for a series.)
What characterizes your connections (relationships) with others? (Collaborating? Provoking? Dominating? Helping? Organizing? Listening? Persuading?)
How powerful are you and how do you acquire and maintain power?
What characterizes your conflicts with others? (Or do you avoid conflict?)
What pushes you to the limit or triggers out-of-control or anti-social behavior? Have you experienced important traumas? Do you have acute sensitivities?
Tell me about your deepest secret(s).
What do you need to find out in the story?
What do you need to learn in the story?
Why are you distinctive?
    •    Style
    •    Skills
    •    Defects/flaws
    •    Perspectives
    •    History
    •    Magic (even if this is not fantasy or paranormal)
Why are you surprising?
What obligations do you think you have? What obligations do you actually have?
What is your work (and what are your attitudes toward work)?
What is your code of honor and what do you value? 

That's the set of questions I'm using now to explore my characters. Sometimes, I fill out what I think the answers will be before I imagine meeting with the character. What I've discovered is they often will surprise me by what they know, what they don't know, and what I got wrong.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 4 - Sidekicks, best friends, and minions

A special word this time for the best friends, minions, and spear carriers who fill out your casts or populate the imaginary spaces of your novels. These are the valued ones who are held for ransom… or callously disposed of by villains.

Why should you worry, as a writer, about connecting with your secondary characters?

It all comes down to creating the best experiences for readers and audiences. While it is a mistake to have a secondary character who overshadow your protagonist (and probably your antagonist), if you don't know them well enough to allow them to credibly play their roles, your story will be diminished.

A wise old man or crone can point out the path the hero or heroine must take. The confidant becomes the proxy for readers anxious to know what's on the protagonist's mind. The princess must be saved. The sidekick must carry the message. The femme fatale must lure the main character into danger.

Secondary characters can turn the story. They can intensify the stakes. It is usually not the main characters, but they who state the theme . Secondary characters illustrate the existence of a larger world. They also help the writer, through techniques like comic relief, to manage the emotional pacing of the story.

As I did with protagonists and villains, I will go through each of the nine dimensions with the secondary characters, but not with all of them. That could be a series of articles in and of itself. I’ll just sample the list as I need to so I can make my points. The rest will be left to you.

So here's the list:

Investment – If you get too involved with your secondary characters, you'll burn a lot of writing time. That's your choice, but the danger is you’ll become too attached. It's easy to unintentionally shift the spotlight away from your main characters if you fill a notebook with interviews and observations on the heroine’s best friend.

You should, however, invest enough so your secondary character is slightly more vivid in your mind that might be appropriate. Everything in a story is seen “as through a glass darkly,” so a little exaggeration is warranted. But, when the waiter delivering a glass of water to your hero explodes off the page, it distorts your plot and sets up inappropriate reader expectations.

One big exception here is what you write in a series. If your next book will focus in on this secondary character – a very popular approach for sequels of romance novels — getting the reader interested is part of marketing your next book.

Communication – I like to explore secondary characters within the contexts of their roles — both their official tasks and their relationships with protagonists and antagonists. This means I often do very limited interviews with these characters. I explore how they themselves feel and think about these two roles.

Commonality – Here, I'm mostly interested in giving myself touch points. To avoid too closely identifying with these characters, that often means grabbing aspects of people I know casually. People I meet once or know through others work best because, in these cases, I will have noticed something that clicks with me, but I don't have the full picture. Roger Zelazny created a secondary character in one of the Amber books who was clearly himself. What resulted was an amusing and memorable scene, but it pulled me out of the story. So be careful about taking a star turn yourself.

Concern — For children in jeopardy, damsels in distress, and other characters who motivate the acceptance of difficult missions, character change, and sacrifice on the part of your protagonists, it is essential that you, as a writer, have as much concern for them as your main characters do. Too often, I find in movies and television shows that the "prizes" who motivate heroes and heroines didn't seem worth it. For me, it makes all the anxiety and action come off as over-the-top and foolish.

Tolerance – What I love about secondary characters is that the more fleeting they are, the more obnoxious and ridiculous they can be. Annoyance is a powerful spice, especially when readers can put down books and viewers can change the channel or pop out the DVD. But in small amounts, especially in longer works, they can create zesty moments.

Reliability – The traits of a secondary character are limited. Be very careful about making them variable. Still, it can be done. For instance, it's very effective to have a minor rival congratulate the main character once the objective is achieved. It helps to underline and amplify the success by showing that even an enemy recognizes the victory. But generally we depend upon secondary characters to provide, sounding boards, unchanging perspectives that respond in understandable ways to the actions, ideas, and comments of main characters.

Surprise/Mystery – See reliability above, with one additional idea: It is wonderful for your plot to be complicated, for obstacles to be made tougher, and for stakes to be raised because a friendly secondary character makes a mistake. Usually, though they may be helpful within their roles, they should not surprise the hero with something that makes life easier.

Mutual dependence – Yes, minions are disposable. But, you as a writer, should feel a little pain when they make their final departures. And it's even more true with characters who fill larger roles, but don't rise to the level of main characters. In every case, a secondary character should be there for a reason, and, as their creator, you can't be uncommitted. Be present, at least a little bit, even for the poor spear carriers.

Shared work/risk – While you can't let them take over, it can be good to give your secondary characters some latitude. Trust them (even if they are minions or femme fatales).

One more thing to think about. Casting is one of the most important factors in the success of a movie or television show. An important point of advice for scriptwriters, therefore, is to make sure that the roles that will make or break the production are written so that good actors will want to play the parts.

When you think about this in terms of either script or a novel, it means you as a writer are required to think beyond the plot value of most of your characters. No one wants to play device. Or read about a character who only serves a function. So don't shortchange your secondary characters because you're afraid they'll steal the show (or you don't think it's worth the bother).

Keep it interesting. Keep it fresh. Create stories that are bigger than the page or the screen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 3 - Shake hands with the devil

Building a good connection with your story's antagonist is tricky. Ignoring the humanity of a villain can result in creating a two-dimensional melodrama character or monster. But having too much empathy can make the villain's plans and attacks too moderate and cheat readers of all that the premise promises.

There is also the temptation to redeem the character, no matter how bad. In principle, some redemption at the end can work well. But in practice, it can fail miserably if the atonement isn't justified and earned by what happens in the story. Note: the character changing his or her mind does not count. There needs to be action.

Okay, with that warning in place, let's explore the villain using the dimensions I used for a hero in last week's post:

Investing in the antagonist by spending time with him or her can be disturbing. I remember how unsettling it was once for me when I realized a friend who came along with me on a grocery shopping trip was eating her way through the aisles and slipping items under her shirt. I get the same sort of unsettling feeling when I imagine myself doing normal activities with one of my story's villains. Who wants to go to the library with someone you randomly tears pages out of books? Or be a passenger in a car where the driver is texting?

Of course, many villains will act normally, even nobly, as they accompany you on typical, daily activities, but it's best if some of these provoke bad behaviors.

On communication, my questions tend to be not much different from what I ask other characters. However, I will try and slip in some bits that are likely to provide openings for bragging or which, with most characters, would lead to apologies. (In fact, sometimes I explicitly ask villains to say they're sorry – with interesting results.)

On concern, you may have are guest that I sometimes have problems with the villain's redemption. But I think it's reasonable to include, at a minimum, worry about whether even the worst of antagonists faces damnation. This means taking the time to truly imagine what damnation might mean for him work for her. Having that in your head will provide a valuable touch point as you seek to humanize your villain. I also like to figure out what sort of scenario might lead to self-destruction.

I don't think there's a good excuse for tolerating the worst behaviors of a villain. It's possible and valuable to understand why they do evil things, but if part of you doesn't prefer a very different choice, conflict can get muddied. (And if you think all actions are equally moral, I'm not sure I want to spend much time with you.)

I find, for myself, toleration of villains is more in the area of their tics and mannerisms, which often are irritating. It doesn't hurt at all to have an antagonist whose hypocrisy or bad manners or slovenly behavior bugs you. False charm is a pet peeve of mine, and I tend to include it in villains. Part of their job, after all, is to be irritating (in many, but not all cases). So, toleration here means hanging around with characters who bother you. And that's part of your job.

Reliability, for a villain, should mean that you can count on them to do anything to achieve the goal (often, just stopping the hero). Going deeper, means establishing the core behaviors that define who this villain is and why he or she does what they do. And, working from the outside in, I always try and see if there are any consistent triggers that can be included to provoke over-the-top and unavoidable reactions.

The villain's main job is to go further than is reasonable. This automatically means that surprises are part of what an antagonist brings to a story. With the best villains, I'm always asking, who does these things? Or, under the best of circumstances, how did he or she even think of doing that? I think mystery is less important for a villain unless you're working on a series. (With any kind of a continuing effort, it's even possible to hide the identity of the chief antagonist through the use of minions.)

You depend upon the villain to make things rough for the hero, and the villain depends upon you to allow that. I've been told that much comedy is driven by anger and contempt. And murder mysteries often begin with the desire by the writer to knock off an enemy. If you can summon such feelings within yourself, you'll have a simpler time letting your villains be as bad as they can be. If that's not easy for you, it might be useful to focus on what you owe this child of your imagination. The villain you created should be allowed to be everything you meant him or her to be. Try to be helpful. If you can't, then at least get out of the villain's way.

In my experience, most writers don't want to be identified with their villains. As a matter fact, they don't want to be identified with any embarrassing or nasty behaviors in their works. Inevitably, this happens. It's a risk you need to accept. In fact, it's very common for readers to ask writers if they had the same experiences, did the same things, and felt the same ways as specific characters, including villains. They also asked if they really are one of the characters in their stories.

Some writers go to great lengths to deny any real-world connections with characters, opinions, and events in their stories. It's fiction! Don't you get that?

But there is some commonality with all characters, and you can't stop people from jumping to conclusions on what is shared. The best reaction I've seen to this truth is a woman who writes a lot about sex and, even though I presume it's not true, constantly startles her readers with the answer, yes, I did do that. In fact, I've done everything you've read about in my books. Good for her. I suspect her readers know as much about the truth as the readers of those whose favorite authors constantly deny connections, but she definitely has a lot more fun.

So go to the dark side (in your imagination) with the bad guys in your stories. People assume he did anyway.

Overall, I think villains are more fun to connect with then heroes. In the next post, I'll explore the space in between, secondary characters.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 2 - Probing your hero until it hurts

Connecting with your characters can deepen your stories and keep you writing. Last time, I posted nine dimensions to consider, and here we'll go into the details with the protagonist in mind.

The biggest problem with building a connection with your protagonist is really getting to know him or her. Often, the protagonist has a lot in common with the writer, but even well-developed and individuated heroes and heroines are likely to feel familiar. After all, the writer wants readers to identify with protagonists, so sympathy as well as empathy is probably existed before the opening lines with written. And the protagonist gets a pass on probing analysis.

Often, it gets worse. The identification is so strong that the kind of test (good writers torture characters) that might reveal characters are avoided or mitigated.

Familiarity and identification mean that writers need to be deliberate and determined before they can truly know protagonists well enough to bond with them. Nick Lowe got it right (for stories, not friendships): "You've gotta be cruel to be kind."  So prepare to go through hell with your protagonist.
  • Investment - I recommend taking a visual approach to this. Consider a series of still photographs or a silent movie of your protagonist doing something (preferably physical) with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can imagine yourself participating, even better. So perhaps, you'll arm wrestle with your hero or cut in at a dance with your heroine. Then push this, by making the action unpleasant. A trip to the dentist would work. Or terrifying -- getting mugged. Three of these shared experiences will tell you a lot about your main character.
  • Communication - Now they can open their mouths. Warm your protagonist up. Get his or her confidence. Then say, "Tell me about your most embarrassing moment." Whatever they respond, follow up with a probing question. Make it open-ended, so they can't get away with a simple yes or no.
  • Commonality - This one is probably easy with the protagonist, and that's fine. You both went to the same college? Are baseball fans? Good. But see if you also share less admirable experiences in your own life (getting arrested? bullying a sibling?). Or list out your guilty pleasures and see if these appeal to your protagonist, too.
  • Concern - Yes. You already care about your character. Note that. Then imagine the worst thing that might happen to him or her (either in or beyond the current story) and spend some time worrying about these happening and imagining the feelings that would result.
  • Tolerance - By now, darker aspects of your hero or heroine (or maybe yourself) should be evident. Don't be afraid. Don't be judgmental. Forgive. Respect. Things will all turn out okay in the end.
  • Reliability - Has the core of your character changed? Is the reason he or she was chosen as the story's protagonist no longer valid? Take another look. Sit with it a while. See if you need to tweak. And remember you can always create a new protagonist, use this one in a different story, or turn the character who was supposed to be the hero into a villain. (This last could be a great move that takes your story to a higher level.)
  • Surprise/Mystery - This usually comes out in the writing. And the best way I know to evoke it with a protagonist -- the character you are most likely to believe you know in and out -- is to make a list of ten to twenty possible responses to a story challenge. The one that is the most shocking, that you never would have guessed your character would have done, may be your best choice. Be open to the possibility. (And, of course, if surprising options pop up spontaneously, don't dismiss them. Even when they seem crazy.)
  • Mutual dependence - This is the part that often falls away for plotters. The main character just goes through the motions. But it's the emotions that count. Your protagonist owes you more than this. Make sure he or she pays back your diligence in providing the best story you can with true responses. If you and your characters avoid being vulnerable and counting on each other, your readers will be cheated.
  • Shared work/risk - Doubt can be a killer for a writer. Or a wonderful tool. It is when things could go wrong (or seem to be going wrong) in the story that you and the characters need to work together. The scenes you struggle with are the ones that force you and your main character to explore more deeply and take chances on. These are the scenes that make or break your story and establish the strongest relationships with your heroes and heroines. Strive together. Be unflinching in the face of disaster.
Okay, I didn't say this ahead of time, but putting your character through some of these exercises puts you through tough experiences, too. So do the work, then do something nice for yourself. Writers who go into dark places with characters they love need to build healthy self-care resources and to indulge in them. Keep yourself sane. Keep writing fun.

Next week, the villains -- which should be less painful.