Thursday, January 19, 2012

On characters

The next segment I'm focusing on this year is character. There's mood and feeeeeling, which have to do with interiority, private interpretation, and voice, all of which are part of character portrayal. But then there's the bit about creating a character who exists apart from the plot events. I will freely confess that while I've read a lot of books where I like the story and feeeeel for the characters, six months later, I can't remember their names (and in really extreme cases, I can't keep two characters in one book straight). So--I would say that while excellent characters are probably a key point in making a book someone's best beloved--it might not be the sole criteria for selling a book. However, I want to write excellent books, not just moderately pleasing ones! So, two thoughts on characters that are not my own, but which I think are worth writing down and using when creating memorable characters:

1. Giving them some distinguishing "thing" that's all their own (from Christy Lenzi), something that exists quite apart from the plot at hand, and
2. Making sure that your principal characters contrast each other and complement each other (from Maggie Stiefvater). Not in a cliche or cardboard way--but some small way to signal to the reader who it is when they come up.

Some examples of these principles:

Anne of Green Gables--who could ever forget Anne? She has carrot-colored hair about which she's very sensitive, and she has a fantastic imagination that gets her into trouble.

Draco Malfoy, with his pale hair, pointed chin, and drawling voice. Actually, just about every character of Rowling's has something. Snape's greasy hair and silky, dangerous voice, Umbridge's horrible pink hair bow. Sometimes it's something visible and sometimes it's a way of speaking (hem hem!). But we know it's them!

DJ Schwenk--she doesn't ever say what's on her mind, even though a lot is.

Julianna from Flipped--the girl with the tree and the chickens

Crossley-Holland's Gatty--bad grammar but sees things true

Wizard Howl--vain!

Lord Teddie, from Entwined, for his posh and genial way of speaking, as well as Lord Bradford's kind brown eyes.

Mr. Malvern from The Scorpio Races, with his horrible tea mixture (tea, butter, milk, and salt--ick!!)

I realize these are examples for point 1 above, and I'm going to have to think some more on contrasting characters. Hopefully I can come up with some good examples and do a follow up post to this.

Friday, January 6, 2012

More on feeeeeeling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these two posts, one by Mary Kole and one by Maggie Stiefvater. I’m told that my plotting and prose skills are up to snuff, but something I still struggle with is getting the reader to feeeeeel. (You may have guessed that by the number of posts on that subject lately.) I know Maggie is exceptionally good at this, and I know she does it deliberately, and after getting my library to buy a copy of her latest book (The Scorpio Races) and keeping it out overdue to study it, I’ve sent off for my own copy. Because this is something I need to learn, and seeing good examples of it while hearing people talk about it are all ways to get this idea into my brain. And I’m having some small insights about this that I wanted to record here.

1. Part of it is getting into your MC’s brain, and bringing the reader along with you. No secrets from the reader.*

2. Part of it is using words and phrases that fall naturally within the range of your focal character’s thoughts/world, but also (to paraphrase Markus Zusak), observations beyond the surface descriptions anyone could grab out of the top of their brain. An example from The Scorpio Races:

...But it’s not a bill collector. It’s a long, elegant car the size of our kitchen, with a tall, elegant grille the size of a dustbin. It has round, friendly-looking eyeballs with chrome eyebrows; its tailpipe breathes white puffs that creep around the tires. And it is red—not the red of the horse I saw on the beach yesterday, but red like only humans can imagine. Red like candy. Red like you’d like to taste or possibly paint your lips with.

Red, Father Mooneyham often remarks sadly, like sin.

3. Part of it is relating those turns of phrase to actual things in the setting/story where the reader is present. Example:

a) I was tired, and my eyes ached under my dry contacts.
b) I was tired, and my contacts felt like shriveled sausage slices on my eyes.
c) It felt like my contacts had become John’s overdone sausage slices from breakfast—shriveled and dead.

Not the greatest example, and somewhat overwritten, but—let’s assume that earlier in the story, John tried to make breakfast and it was a disaster. This reference back to something from the character’s actual world adds a layer of grounding to your story. It’s almost like a private joke between the reader and the character.

*Although I will add a caveat to that—sometimes you may pull off a narrator who keeps secrets from the reader, major ones—like in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief. There are some…key facts, you could say, that Gen “forgets” to tell us for a good part of the book. But. It works. I think it works because even if he declines to reveal some major facts about himself, he isn’t keeping emotional secrets from the reader. We may learn new things about him at the end—but he doesn’t turn into a different person. We know his feelings and personality and outlook on life as much as we would have with that extra knowledge.