Politics

Keep these sources of conflict in mind when developing your characters.

Remember all characters have to have an agenda/goals they want to achieve. That gives them a driving force, even if it is a passive or negative one. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively or subtly. Or they could not pursue their goals, which also says something about them.

Motivation is the most important factor to consider when having your character make choices or do actions. Once you have a feel for your characters' motivation and they come alive for you, then to a certain extent you lose control over your story. For your characters to be realistic, they have to react like the people you have developed them to be, not like you want them to react in order to move your story ahead. Every time a character acts or reacts, I ask myself if that is consistent with who I projected the character to be.

For example, I wrote a scene where some people were trying to talk my main character into traveling back to Cambodia where he had last been over thirty years ago. Where his Special Forces team had been wiped out horribly and my character had had nightmares about for years. And I needed my character to agree to go (or else the book would have been rather short). But I had to sit and come up with a legitimate reason for my character to go. I had to figure out what would motivate him to agree to do something that he normally would not do. And it had to be believable to the reader, which means it had to be believable to my character.

Remember also to consider extremes when writing about characters in order to involve your reader more intensely. You can have a good character and a bad character. But would the reader prefer to see an evil character and a noble character? Think of personalities as a pendulum and understand that the further you swing that pendulum, the more involved the reader usually will be. Therefore, take any very positive trait you can think of and try to find its opposite. Do the reverse. Then use those traits to develop your characters.

You need to study people and also remember that you were not the original mold for mankind. Some people are very different than you and have different value systems. I think authors who have very good characters understand this very well. Much better than the average person.

I read an interesting thing that other day in a psychology book: the author said that everyone has a religion. What he meant was that everyone has something they believe in, even if it's not to believe in God. To write good characters, you need to know what their value and belief system is, then keep them acting according to that system. Even a crazy serial killer character has a belief system, skewed as it may be. In fact, dissecting that belief system is often the task of the novel's main good character in order to catch the serial killer.

In fact, a book I recommend reading is John Douglas's Mindhunter. Douglas was one of the founders of the Investigative Support Unit that specialized in profiling. What an author does is actually the opposite of what his unit does. A profiler looks at the evidence then tries to figure who the person is. An author invents the person then needs to come up with the evidence that would be representative of that person. Another interesting aspect of profiling is that it shows that people have character traits that are locked in and that those traits dictate their actions.

For me, the hardest thing to do as a writer is develop an agenda for a character that is something I don't personally have, and then keep in mind that the character is not totally aware of his own agenda and as a writer show the reader this agenda.

Continuing on in the field of psychology, you can learn about personality types with a little bit of study and apply those personalities to your characters. The Briggs-Meyers Test divides people up into 16 different personality types. It is given in a book called: Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types. The title tells you this might be a good way to get insight into character.

Not only are the 16 types listed, but also the good and bad tendencies of each type are listed which helps making well-rounded characters. Also, the typical interactions between the various personality types are also listed. I found that when I took the test, the personality type I fell into, described me very accurately, both good and bad. The author also lists the percentage of the population that falls into the various types and the types are labeled.

A mistake can be to make a character a composite of several people that the author knows (even though above I said this is a good technique.). The problem is that various parts of different personalities often don't fit together in a smooth mesh in one person. Be careful if you are making a composite character. Make sure that all the parts fit together or else your character will appear to have multiple personalities. Unless, that is what you want.

Another thing to keep in mind is that every character trait is double-edged. Sometimes I read a student's character sketch and I ask: what's wrong with this person? What's bad about them? Too often the characters are projected as two-dimensional, perfect people. All female characters are beautiful. All male characters are over six feet, know several martial arts and are deadly with a gun, yet still a loving father to their children. Right.

Remember, if someone is very loyal, is that a good thing? Can't loyalty carried to an extreme be very bad? Isn't that true of every so-called good emotion? Can't love slide into obsession? By working with these emotions, you add depth and interest to your characters.

I've noticed that British TV seems to do more with characters than American TV. I've recently watched two series, Cracker and Kavanagh, where the main characters had flaws, in some case severe. In Cracker, the main character is a psychologist who consults with the police. He also is addicted to gambling. Smokes like a chimney. His wife is leaving him every other episode. He is truly the flawed 'good' guy. Hollywood has gotten away from that, but writing hasn't so much. Give your main characters some rough edges. Readers relate to that.

Unless of course you're writing a Star Wars book. Or a 007 book. There are some types of books where the 'pure' main character is necessary.

Even in an action oriented book, it is useful to look at your characters and try to have each major one have an ongoing personal crisis as a sort of subplot that moves along with the major action crisis. This helps keep the readers as interested in the character as in the plot. This is not as easy to do as it sounds. The character subplot—to be successful—usually has to do several things:

1. Not jar the reader and take away from the action of the main plot, but rather supplement it.

2. Have a conclusion before or at the same time the main plot concludes.

3. It should support the main plot in some manner, beyond the simple fact that the character is involved in the main plot. For example, if your detective is going through a divorce while she is working the big case, is there a way the divorce itself can be connected to the big case beyond the effect it has on the detective? Maybe the prime suspect's lawyer also represents the detective's husband? I talk quite a bit about this in the section on subplots.

I think one of the hardest things to do as a writer is show something about a character rather than tell it. Since most people/characters are not walking around self-actualized on

Maslow's fifth level, they are often unaware of the reasons for their own actions. In fact, psychology indicates that people build up their strongest defenses (read 'denial') around the weakest parts of their character.

To give you an example of how a writer shows something about a character rather than simply telling the reader, in Lisa Alther's book Kinflicks the author wanted to show how one of the female characters was always greatly influenced by whatever man was in her life. A brilliant writer like me would have said: "And she was greatly influenced by whatever man happened to be living with her that year." Someone like Lisa Alther shows this by having the woman be dressed totally different each year when she flew home to visit her mother.

Some writing instructors say a main character has to change by the end of the story. My question to you is how many people do you know who have really changed? This gets down to the definition of what change is.

Here is what I think happens to a character when they change. A character has a moment of enlightenment, makes a decision based on that moment, than has to live with the consequences of that decision which ultimately does change both them and the story. But the 'burning bush' type of change is hard to pull off realistically. Most of the time if you do that type of complete change it will ring false to the reader—like an author manipulation.

99% of what people do day-in and day-out is habit. And habits are extremely difficult to change. A great example of character 'change' is in the movie The Verdict. Paul Newman plays a drunken, down and out lawyer. He has one case left—

a wrongful injury suit. He's in the hospital taking pictures of this woman in a coma. Suddenly, he stops taking pictures and just looks at the woman. Not a word of dialogue—but he has a moment of enlightenment. The thing in the bed is suddenly not a case, but a real person. He decides there that he will try this case and win it.

What's so good, though, is that he's still a bum and a drunk. He still screws things up. He suddenly doesn't become a brilliant, sober lawyer. But with his decision he does do some things differently. Because he has to live with the results of that decision, he is forced to change.

Another factor to consider is reader empathy for your protagonist. Too often I get character sketches or stories from writers where the main character is someone who the reader won't like. Now, once in a while, a really good writer can pull that off, but it's hard to do. I bring this up right after talking about 'change' in a character because sometimes writers want to start with a negative main character and have the character change into a likable one by the end of the book. The difficulty with that is getting the reader into the story with a character they might not like. If you try to do this, you should have some sort of redeeming quality scene very early so the reader knows there is a seed of hope.

In screenwriting, it is generally accepted that within the first ten minutes of the film (i.e. , the first ten pages of the screenplay) the nature of the main character has to be shown to the audience in some manner. As a novel writer you should 'set' your main character pretty early in the novel.

The problem I've run into and others writers I've talked to have is how to make characters who aren't 'cardboard' cut outs. Who have depth, but yet at the same time we aren't blatantly telling the reader about.

Something to consider is this: can you look at someone who is different from you, who has different values, and not only understand him, but empathize with him to a certain extent? I think many smart people have a hard time understanding characters who do things that are obviously not smart. Yet those same smart people have blind spots in their personality where they do corresponding not-smart things. The difficulty as an author is to have characters that you know their faults, yet write them as real people who don't see those same faults. And, you can't spell those faults out to the reader—you have to show those character traits.

You will always have a protagonist and an antagonist. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who is the protagonist?

Butch.

Why? Because he always comes up with the plans.

Remember that your protagonist is only as good as the antagonist is bad. There would be no Clarice Sterling without a Hannibal Lecter.

Try to give you antagonist as strong a motivation as your protagonist. That way the conflict between the two rings true.

However, there are different ways to look at those. Something I've just recently realized is that the antagonist can be a situation. If you're writing a book about the Alamo, while Santa Anna and the Mexican Army might seem like the antagonist, in reality the situation is what everyone, including the bad guys, are up against.

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