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Monday, November 23, 2015

Beginagin

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently completed a class on writing noir fiction through LitReactor. It was great to be writing and providing feedback on a schedule. Something about writing assignments exempts them from the anxiety and deer-in-headlights feelings that I have regarding any creative writing I do for myself. The class helped focus and define a few things that, up until that point, had been amorphous blobs floating in the ether for me. There was little that I explicitly didn’t know, but the class helped put a fine point on it. The biggest thing, for me, was the character building exercise.

How many of you have seen the exhaustive character sheets out there for “really getting to know your main character”? Forty-plus questions with things like “which shoe does he/she put on first,” “what’s his/her favorite flavor of ice cream,” and “would he/she go back in time and kill baby Hitler”? When I see those, when I’m first trying to build a brand new character, I immediately get entirely overwhelmed and give up, thinking, “the character will show me who she is as I go.” This does happen, to be sure, but it took me three drafts to get to the level of familiarity that her actions don’t seem foreign or unsupported. I could have gotten to that level by thinking about these questions first. The following list is stolen directly from my class (instructor Benjamin Whitmer, all credit [and praises and oreos] to him):

  • Big personality: And I mean big. Think Tony Soprano or Richard III. The stronger your character’s voice, the more people will put up with them being bad. This doesn’t mean the character needs to big and blustery, just unforgettable.
  • Distinctive appearance: This seems too easy to even mention, but it’s worth considering. Try to imagine Ahab without his stump or Richard III without his hunchback. Complicated characters often find themselves identified by that which has wounded them. These get fixed in the sharp, perfect details (Ahab actually has two: the bone leg and his scar) that fix the character in our mind. Often these are given us right from the introduction.
  • Action: Character is action. As writers, our inclination is to create characters like us, who stand in the corners and observe. And, of course, there have been many great novels written from the point of view of characters who do so. (Including my favorite, Moby Dick.) But we’re not talking about Ishmael, we’re talking about Ahab. Our characters can’t be trusted except by what they do, and what they do should tell us who they are.
  • Competency: They should be good at something. Particularly the thing that makes them a bad guy. If they’re bad because they’re violent, they should be very, very good at being violent. If they’re good at manipulating others – like Iago, for instance – they should be very, very good at that manipulation. And we shouldn’t be told what they’re good at: We should be shown them being good at it. Show them winning in a violent situation, successfully manipulating people to nefarious ends, making great crystal meth; whatever it is that they do well. What it is that they do well that makes them bad, should be shown in a way that shows it just as bad as it is. Don’t flinch from that, nor from the consequences of their actions. Show them doing harm.
  • Incompetency: They should be bad at something. Particularly the thing that makes them sympathetic. If it’s their big heart that makes them love puppies, then show us them being bad at loving puppies (think of Lennie in Of Mice and Men). As with their competency, this should be shown, never told. You don’t need to sell the reader. Just small gestures to indicate there is more to them then what it is that they do well that makes them a bad guy.
  • Desires: Your character needs to want something. Something bad enough to disrupt their normal life. Their desires have to be as big as their personality, and it has to be something that the reader can relate to. This does NOT ever need said. Often, at least for me, one of the pleasures of a bad character is figuring out what it is that they want: What drives them. And often times it is those characters that do not have easily communicable desires/motivations that I find most thrilling. In fact, they may not even be aware of their desires themselves. But you need to be.
  • Fears: This is the same as their desires: Their fears have to be as big as their character. They will not always be entirely aware of them, and they should be shown in their actions. If they were transparent to the characters, they would not be fears. And, likewise, their fears will most likely be intertwined with their desires in ways that the character is not entirely aware of. (Like the rest of us.)
  • Internal Conflict: This intertwining of their desires and fears will create a good portion of their internal conflict. Again, as Faulkner said in his Nobel acceptance speech, the only story worth telling is the human heart in conflict with itself. This intertwining of desire and fear is where that internal conflict comes from. They will be trying to run towards their desires and away from their fears, and in the best cases they will find that the two are inseparable.
  • External conflict: This seems too obvious to say, but it is something that too often goes unsaid. Action is character, so the character needs to do things. But at the same time, things need done to the character. We need to see them under pressure, so that we can see the cracks. Anybody can behave at their best when there’s no pressure, but it’s during the tough times that you see character exposed. Likewise, no matter how bad they are, the more we see the external pressures on them, the closer we will feel to them. So put the screws to them. Everybody, and I mean everybody, is more interesting with a gun to their head.
  • Code of Behavior: Notice that I did not say moral code, or even ethical code. I don’t really care about their morals, if they happen to have them. Asking for a moral code implies the need for the writer to make moral judgments about their characters, and I’m firm a believer that’s the last thing you want to do. So don’t worry about their ethics or morals: Worry about what they will and won’t do. They should have reasons for that, sure, but you don’t need to care to judge them. Just show them playing out.
  • Proximity: Write close. No matter how bad your character is, never forget that it’s their story. The reader won’t forget it either. First person or close third person with heavy usage of the free indirect style are good ways to get there. Just by staying with the character, by watching their immediate reactions, the reader won’t be able to help develop a certain sympathy, even if the character is not necessarily sympathetic.

This applies more to noir heroes, who are more accurately called anti-heroes, since noir is by definition told from the point of view of the person performing the illicit act. Think Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. But, aside from the language that specifically applies to “bad guys,” the same advice easily applies to “good guys.” And if you can distill your character down to the qualities above that actually seem to want an answer, you suddenly have a solid foundation upon which to build your character. After that, you may find that it’s easy (and fun!) to answer questions about ice cream and baby Hitler.

Now, one thing I want to emphasize from the above “worksheet” (or whatever): desires and fears. It is extremely easy to herp-derp through that, but do yourself a favor and don’t say, “My character wants lollipops, and my character fears not having lollipops.” It’s overly simplistic and ridiculous, if you think about it. For instance, you, dear reader, want tickets to the next San Diego Comic Con. You really really really want them. But do you really fear not having them? After all, you already don’t have them. I think we all have sortof amorphous “I’m afraid of never getting what I want,” but we all have much more immediate, defined fears that rank higher in our attention than “what if my dreams never come true.” As my instructor said, think about how the desires and fears intertwine: what terrible outcome, in the course of pursuing his desire, will your character be unable to avoid causing? It should end up being a clear choice between the two. Get what you want and fulfill your darkest fear… or neither.

I will put up my character breakdown that I did for this class.



Alec Walker
  • Physical characteristic: Terrible scarring as a result of a factory explosion.
  • Competency: Leading—with an iron fist.
  • Incompetency: Connecting with his son.
  • Desires:
    • Internal goal: Form a loving relationship with his estranged son.
    • External goal: Work for the Good of the Company, bring son into the fold.
  • Fears: Learning that his life’s work has been an illusion of fulfillment.
  • Internal conflict: Company vs Son
  • External conflict: Self vs Son
  • Code of behavior:
    • Will: Use manipulative, fear-based tactics to achieve his ends.
    • Use blatant threats to achieve his ends.
    • Use actual aggressions, short of violence against humans, to achieve his ends.
    • Use his fearsome appearance to achieve his ends, if all else fails.
    • Won’t: Use violence against humans to achieve his ends.
    • Ask nicely/beg.
    • Go out in public.
    • Go anywhere where “normals” can see him, unless absolutely necessary.
    • Show appreciation for underlings, or anyone but his bosses.

As I’ve illustrated above, you can see that the breakdown is nice and short. As long as you know what it’s saying, you don’t have to spell out every little thing. And now, you can guess how your character is going to react to most conflicts.

Well, this was a really, really roundabout way of saying that, after learning these things (and that thing in particular), I’m starting over—again. Luckily, I think the narrative I’ve written so far can mostly stay intact, but I’m rewriting the outline. And I’m rewriting it in a way that makes more sense to me (and thus will end up being more useful for me). I am about 800 words into my new outline and I already like it more.

So, progress is being made. Now if only I could just slay that mothafuckin’ dragon of anxiety that keeps popping up every time I open my Cassidy document, I could really knock this sucker out.

Wish me luck, faithful readers!

2 comments:

Becky Munyon said...

Ahh, that was helpful. Thank you. I need help with character development. I'm realizing I don't know some of my characters as well as I thought I did. I like to do a combo of writing narrative first and then doing the big giant character outline, otherwise I'm just straying from it or randomly deciding that red is someone's favorite color for no particular reason other than the fact that red popped into my head first.
You're doing very good. I think lots of people stop and go "oh, I should be doing this differently." You weren't that far into your draft, so it's no biggie.
I have no advice on getting rid of that dragon of anxiety other than to just tell it to shut up. And I'll keep telling you how good you're doing, maybe that will help.

Elly Conley said...

=) always my best motivator! Thanks!