Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Character outside of plot

I think plot is something that springs from character, and that the two are pretty much inseparable. So perhaps this isn't the most accurate title. But there's something I see occasionally (probably because I'm guilty of the same thing), and that is when a main character is not a complete, breathing person but an empty set of eyes to see the plot by. And this ties into how to make your reader identify with the character and feeeeel.

We want to make the main character sympathetic, right? One way to do that is to show them being nice to someone weaker than themselves. Another way is to show how other characters are worse than the MC. But it's not enough to feel sorry for your MC. Pity isn't the same thing as love, you know. Nor is an empty set of eyes. It's hard to love a character who just records events without being personally involved. The big question you have to settle for the reader first of all is, why would they want to hang around this character for 200+ pages? And to help answer that, you need to show who this character is. So imagine your character outside of the plot of this particular story. Who are they? What are they like when the bullies AREN'T around? What do they dream of, what do they want, what are their aspirations for when things go right? What makes them the most happy, the most relaxed, the most themselves? How are they good? You need to know (and show) those things so that when the plot happens, we have someone to love and cheer for. Of course you aren't going to want to explain all this before the plot starts--you need action and choices right up front, too. But it's important to weave in this sense of character early on so that you give your reader someone--a real someone--to cheer for.

More on character

Just a couple of small writing ideas/observations before starting the craziness of Thanksgiving. Maybe someday I'll come back and develop them some more. For the moment, I just don't want to forget them.

1. Finding your way into a character's head/voice: set up a scenario (a waiting room, a park, a train station, etc.) and have two different characters write how they would see the place. The details they notice and the mood they feel and what the setting makes them want to do should be distinct from character to character.

I think, to make this a more meaningful activity, it would be best to do this with two characters who are more or less foils to each other. This might be your hero and your antagonist--or it might be two characters who have to work together but who are very--perhaps abrasively--different. (So--not just Harry vs. Voldemort, but maybe Hermione vs. Luna.) Doing this will help you figure out what is the same (ie how they connect) and what is different (ie where the tension comes from) between these two characters.

2. Making your reader feeeel. This is just one of my weaknesses, so I'm always trying to notice why a scene works in a book for me. Or in this case, a movie. One of the best scenes I've seen in a while is the one of Neville's speech in the last Harry Potter film. Just excellently done. In that scene, the audience knows something the characters do not, and yet, when you watch it, you feel extremely sad right along with them. Why? Because the camera doesn't just show you a tragic scene; it shows the characters' reactions to what they are confronting. Ginny's scream, for example. What Neville says and does, even though he doesn't have all the facts, sets the emotion for the audience as well. And, the best moment of all--the surprise (to the characters). The camera gives you both emotions--those of the good guys and those of the bad. They could have stopped with Voldemort's reaction, but they didn't--what carries the scene and makes it even stronger is the fact that they show Hermione's reaction as well. Just stating the facts of the case isn't enough if you want your reader to feel. When you know what your character is feeling, you cease to be an outside observer, and that character's reaction can pull you along so that you are inside the story. Then you as the reader will feel--which is what an author wants, right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making a character sympathetic

The other night I picked up an old mystery to reread. Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey. She's not Dorothy Sayers, but I do like some of her books, and this one is my favorite. It's a cool setup that would make a good movie. Or remake. Or something. The premise is this: Brat Farrar, backgroundless orphan, returns from America to England and an actor spots him and is astonished at how much he resembles one Patrick Ashby of the horse farm Latchetts. One Patrick Ashby who supposedly threw himself off a cliff years ago because he couldn't deal with his parent's death. One Patrick Ashby who would be coming into his inheritance on his 21st birthday--in just a few weeks. Instead, his twin brother Simon will be filling that place. The actor proposes Brat return as Patrick, say he'd just run away that night (they never found the body, after all), and share the inheritance with him in return for some coaching. It sounds despicable--and yet, as a reader you find yourself cheering for Brat and not Simon.

1. Brat's got a conscience. He knows it's wrong, and it bothers him.
2. Yet he's got a deep, elemental love for horses, and the temptation to even just see Latchetts is strong.
3. When "his" aunt meets to identify him, he's exactly everything she ever wanted Patrick to be. And Brat, who's never had anyone like a true parent, can't help but love her. It's not money he wants--it's a desperate longing for a place and a family that's truly his.
4. We don't like Simon once we meet him! Brat loves Latchetts like Simon never will. He belongs there.
5. Brat's smart, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. But his longing for something he'd never considered comes through. Sometimes it's not what you say, but what you don't say, that reveals character.

And it goes on (in a spoilerish way, so I'll stop with that.) So interesting, though, how a good author can take even someone in a not very likable situation and make them sympathetic.