Monday, March 16, 2009

Compelling Characters

Thanks to the recent flurry of blog postings, I've been thinking a lot about character--the ones I'm writing and the ones I have most adored to read.

Piggybacking on Sarah's post on quiet characters (March 10th), here are a few of my thoughts on what makes characters compelling, quiet or not.

1. They fail and keep trying. We don't want to read about people who get everything right the first time, nor do we like characters who give up too easily. Success in the end is so much more rewarding if we've been with the character through failure after failure. And that's how they learn and grow. Hence, a satisfying character arc.

(Sounds simple, eh? But right now I'm having a hard time allowing my mc to fail. I just don't want to write those scenes, or I rush through them so quickly they become eyeblink failures. I haven't figured out why yet, but I'm working on it.)

2. They have unique reactions to situations. I love it when a character surprises me, when they do something I wouldn't have thought to do. It makes me want to keep reading to find out why. On this, the author must deliver. It's not enough to tell me, "she lashed out because she felt trapped." Show me the buildup, so I feel it physically with the character. Then, when she slaps her own mother, I'm surprised, but I understand what drove Miss Mabel Clark to do such a thing.

3. The strange things that happen when I compare them to myself. When I read a character and find nuggets of myself there, especially those things I'm not proud of (or too proud of) or quirks that I try to keep hidden--that I find compelling, particularly when it's something I didn't even realize about myself until the author worded it so beautifully.

Or, there's the flip side. When a character is so utterly different from myself, their mind working in a completely different way, I want to keep reading to find out what this fascinating creature will do next. Of course, there's lots of in-between, but I'm always looking for myself in characters, and the compelling part is either finding it or so totally not finding it.

Which brings me to the thing I need most from a character in order to like them:

4. I need to understand them. Or at least feel that I'm beginning to. This is what the author must do--make me understand. Because the moment I start understanding a character, I feel connected, and it is this connection that makes me keep reading. (I will keep reading for other things--intriguing ideas, a dynamite plot--but it's not the same as caring about a person.)

Even if the character does horrible things, I can roll with it as long as I understand why (and it's a plausible reason). Even if they're completely wrong, I'll likely stick with them as long as they have some fervor to their belief. In Les Miserables your sympathies are with Jean Valjean, the escaped convict who didn't do anything all that bad. But you can also completely understand Javert, the by-the-book police officer chasing the "dangerous" convict. And it's because Hugo made me understand Javert.

I'm sure I have more criteria for likable characters, but I'll stop for now. And of course, we're all different. I have hated some characters that other people seem to love. (I couldn't stand that mamby-pamby Kite Runner mc and would have stopped reading if it weren't for the story.)

But really, I'll stop now.


Sarah said...

Great points, Lisa! I especially like the one about understanding the character. So true.

Sarah said...

I've been thinking about unique traits as well. What specific ticks do my characters have? We all have people we know so well that we can read their body language. I'd like my readers to be that familiar with my character- Elsbeth does such and such when she's nervous, etc.

Janet Reid linked to a great post about just that:

Anyway, it's been interesting to think of traits, and it's an easy thing to do when you're busy with something else. I've discovered that trying to sort out anything bigger- plot points, for instance- while driving can be a bit dangerous.

Lisa said...

Yeah, I hear you. Sometimes I try to sort out plot problems while biking through the city with my son. Not a good idea. There are some crossings where you're negotiating with three or four cars and about 10 other bikes. Yikes!

But yeah, I've been thinking about specific traits also. For the smaller characters, the trick is to find ones that don't seem hokey. For me, the best way to do this is to let the traits come out of the writing rather than randomly out of my head. That way they are more real.

I have a FreeType file that I go to whenever I need to figure something out. Instead of thinking about that sticky plot point, I type, letting my fingers fly as fast as they can. It's helped me work out quite a few problems. And often I find, after 20 minutes of typing, I have a whole new scene written. Or not. Sometimes it's pages of dreck.

By the time I finish, my FreeType file will be as long as my novel. :)

Sarah said...

Your Free Type file is my Bits and Pieces file! I do all my story's throat clearing in that file.

Anonymous said...

These are great! Very true, and quite helpful. Thank you!