Saturday, January 10, 2009

Characterization Confessions

Forty two doctors agree: writers should develop the characters within their novels. Ok. This is a given. But for anyone riding the fence (which is an uncomfortable position, btw), here's my take on it. Please understand that my opinions have been filtered through the many glorious readings I've journeyed on, as well as authors like Blake Snyder, Joseph Campbell, even Orson Scott Card, and I can no longer correctly attribute ideas to specific peoples and times.

Characters should grow. Sizzle. Pop. The conflicts along the way should provide opportunities for the character to try and fail, try and fail, try and fail again. But each failure brings a slightly new understanding or a nuance of shading or a moment in time for the character to reassess her progress or regression. And by the end of the novel, the final scene is ultimately inevitable if the author has layered the scenes correctly. (Notice I didn't say predictable, because that is an entirely different matter altogether.) Whether or not your final scene is victory or failure, yummy or bittersweet, is not the issue -- that's your prerogative as author.

But the first snapshot of your heroine and the final snapshot must be significantly different. There must be some kind of growth or change or metamorphosis, or your entire novel has accomplished nothing. It will leave your readers feeling empty, much like that dry rice cake leaves you mere moments after you embark on your annual Holiday Damage Control. A favorite poster child for character development is Rudyard Kipling's Captain's Courageous. The first and final pictures of Harvey Cheyne Jr., vivid and memorable, are burned into my brain for all time. And when I mouth the title of your book, similar images should quiver to the top of my memories.

Confession: I don't really like the character I've created in Lauren. I intellectually understand that if she is to develop and mature and grow into the kick-butt heroine that I like at the end of the book, the beginning picture of Lauren must be the "before" picture, however unattractive that picture may be. And because I hate angsty, I have been pretty conservative about making her "before" picture too unattractive. But darn it, I don't like her!

And if I don't like her, who else will?

And if I don't like her, will I finish her story?

And if I don't like her, can I just kill her off?

But I'm brought back to Kipling's genius. Harvey is a spoiled brat kid who makes you grit your teeth -- the kind you want to backhand into next week and then taunt with the Tylenol bottle. Yet, Kipling finished the book. Readers persevered and were rewarded with the final picture, a selfless, compassionate Harvey, who understands the true definition of manhood. Decades later, an unknown blogger references the literary genius of writer and book...and tries to kickstart her own determination to return to WIP. With grace. Dignity. Determination.

Oh, Heaven help me.


B J Keltz said...

Very cool post. I suppose if you can tackle your WiP I'll have to return to Dalcina, who is such a product of her upbringing she makes me want to yell "grow a spine!"

stu said...

Do you like where she ends up? More to the point, do you like the story as it is with her fulfilling this role?

Elizabeth Loupas said...

What makes the opening of CC work for me is that Kipling leads off with several adult male passengers talking about what a twit Harvey is. The reader can instantly identify with them, and perhaps even feel a twinge of sympathy for the spoiled (and the point is clearly made that it's more his parents' fault than his own) brat they're dissing. From there Kipling moves quickly into Harvey being swept overboard and suffering for his sins. It wouldn't work one-tenth as well for me if it started with two or three chapters of Harvey "before."


Anonymous said...

No you can't kill her! In all of the books I'm thinking of where the character wasn't particularly likable in the beginning, they were still lovable - there was something there that made them matter. Find something that allows you to love her, and at least give her that. Besides - yes the protagonist in your novel should be changed by the end, but - most of my favorite novels have characters that I loved in the beginning and in the end. It usually isn't something so dramatic that we hate them in the beginning and then love them by the end of the story.

Alex Moore said...

@BJ: thanks -- and yes, this means Dalcina gets another chance to prove she can grow one :)

@stu: good questions, and the answer is yes & yes. Maybe I'm feeling ambivalent towards the book as a whole, so I'm blaming it on Lauren.

@Elizabeth: excellent observation re: cc. Lauren isn't a spoiled brat, per se, but she is prickly. The "before" scenes make it very clear she has justification for such prickliness -- and, I hope, evoke an odd mixture of sympathy, identification and distaste. That's my goal, anyway.

@uppington: oh you're too right. :) Well, she's witty and self-deprecating and takes the slaps of life pretty much in she's admirable in those ways. But she's also sarcastic to the point it hurts those she loves. Of course, it's a defense mechanism, but this is the part that will change by the end --> along w/ a whole slew of other things. I hope. But you're right. I'll have to make sure there's a strong spark of likeability in her from the beginning... thanks for the thoughts.

other lisa said...

Heh - I'm working with a whole group of characters who are not terribly likable right now...and I'm not sure how much more likable they'll become. Uh oh.

Peter said...

Ahh... I feel you pain.. but you can't let her go now! Or can you...?

I'd love to read this sometime.. you must share...

Did you see Anthony's link to Lauren's post? I think we may all be in this sinking ship together... :)