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Posts Tagged ‘characters’

So, you write a first draft. Then you put it in the bottom drawer, let it cool its heels for a while, see. Make it nervous. The more time it spends alone, the more it starts to need some human interaction. The more time you leave it there, the more you think about it, get inside its head. The more time it spends alone, the more eager it will be to talk. Maybe you bring a friend along for the interrogation, play good cop-bad cop, see. Slap it around a little … Oh, wait.

Sorry, this isn’t the ‘write a cheesy cop drama script’ post, is it?

It’s the ‘questions to ask your first draft’ post.

Okey dokey.

As I said before being possessed by the spirit of James Cagney, when you’ve written a first draft you need to look over it with an editor’s eyes. It’s best not to steal actual editors’ eyes – they get upset and I won’t be doing that again – and it’s also something you need to develop for yourself. Again, do not attempt to steal then transplant actual editors’ eyes. One of the things you do can to assist in your own improvement as a writer is to make a list. Check it twice. A list of questions you need to ask when you’re revisiting the first draft. As always, this isn’t law (or indeed lore), just some advice based on my experiences, which others may find helpful. I long ago accepted that my function in life was to act as a warning to others.

1. Dialogue: Do all my characters sound the same? Do they all use the same quirks of speech, slang, rhythms, cadences? If I were to be locked in a dark room with all my characters, would I be able to distinguish them, one from the other, by their how they spoke or would they all sound like some polyglot-esperanto mishmash? This doesn’t mean giving one an outrageous accent, for accents also hold nasty pitfalls for the writer (newbie and experienced).

2. Characters: Are my characters stereotypes? Have I made them interesting? If they are not sympathetic, then at least are they engaging enough to keep a reader reading? Have I given each of them some little personality distinctions so that a reader doesn’t think the Clone Wars has come to my story?

3. Descriptions: Are they convincing? Are my descriptions of actions true to life? i.e. if you’re not sure about something you’ve described a character doing, then try to do it yourself. If you put your back out/chop off a finger doing it, then chances are you need to rethink what you’ve written. Also, your descriptions of physical surroundings – are they (a) believable, (b) accurate (if you’re writing about a real place, make sure you get things like the name of a capital city right, correct weather patterns, vegetation, flora, etc), and (c) sketched skilfully and not overdone.

4. Plot consistencies: Is your plot consistent? Does a character’s motivation suddenly and mysteriously change halfway through the story for no reason? Does the beginning of the story match the end? i.e. Does the story you set out to tell in your first paragraph relate to the end of the story you’ve told? Is everything that was promised paid off? Have you completely forgotten to finish a character’s arc? Are there holes through which one could drive a relatively large track? At the end of things, does your story make sense? Is there an internal logic which will be obvious to a reader, not make s/he scratch her/his head in confusion?

5. The textual stuff: This covers things like repetitions of words and phrases, i.e. those that are not intentional and carefully considered for reasons of rhyme and cadence and layering of your prose. Also, what are your crutch words, the ones you use over and over because you’re a lazy writer? Create a search and destroy list that you can check over time you write a story (please, no matter who you are, put “suddenly” at the top). Do you have something that happens in every one of your stories? Mine is having my characters eating bread and cheese. This reflects my obsession with bread and cheese, but I realise that in draft number two, I need to change the menu.

Sooooo, these are just the ones off-the top of my head. Add your own. These are also first principles kinds of things, the stuff we sometimes forget, but should be running like a background program all the time. A list beside the desk is a good reminder. Off you go – go all Hot Fuzz on that story’s ass.

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Do my characters have to be ‘likeable’?

Having had a couple of short story rejections this week (which is a designated taking-time-off-work-and-writing-like-a-caffeinated-monkey week), this is something I’ve been pondering. One of the rejections said “We didn’t like the main character”. This started me thinking about the received wisdom of readers needing to like your characters. (Admittedly, it also caused me to make rude hand signals at the email in question – hey, I hate rejections same as the next person, I just happened to write a sensible post about dealing with them).

I mean, not everyone is going to like Elizabeth Bennett – some might see her as a whinging little pill – but a highly engaging whinging little pill.

So, do your characters need to be likeable?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say “No”.

I had a chat with the most excellent Karen Miller recently and the thing she said that stuck in my mind (well, there were many things, but this was the particular thing that had sequins and some ostrich feathers on it and I’m partial to both of those things) was that your characters need to be engaging. That’s not the same as likeable. A reader has to want to take the journey with your character – maybe because s/he likes them, sure. But maybe also just because said reader wants to see what happens, even if s/he doesn’t like the character.

I’m going to build on engaging and add that a reader needs to understand a character – also something you don’t need to like someone to do. I may not like a character, but if I can understand her/his actions and choices (even if I don’t agree with them) I will go on the journey with them. I want to know how things work out.

Characters who are engaging for me that I don’t necessarily like? Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in Perdido Street Station – selfish, intellectually vain, arrogant sod. The narrator in Gaiman’s Bitter Grounds – again, selfish. Julia in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre – not likeable at all, but engaging and understandable in a lot of ways. Lestat in the early Anne Rice books. Don Sebastian de Villanueva in Les Daniels’ Yellow Fog – selfish, monstrous but sympathetic.

Characters I have found engaging and liked but not necessarily agreed with their choices? John Connolly’s Charlie Parker – superbly drawn, conflicted character, someone whose actions you don’t always agree with, but man, you have empathy for the guy. Finn in Diana Norman’s Daughter of Lir – grumpy and bossy but you love her. Hekat in Karen Miller’s Empress of Mijak – scary but you understand her and suffer for her even if you don’t always like her. Fia in Nancy Kress’ The White Pipes – cowardly liar, but you understand why. Those are just the ones leaping to my tired mind because (a) they’re on the bedside table, and (b) they rock.

And if there’s no conflict for a reader about what a character does, then where’s your story? If a character doesn’t make questionable choices some time, then what’s the point? “Everyone was nice and made the right decisions and we all sat down for tea and toast” – doesn’t really work, does it?

So, I personally don’t need to like a character. I just need to understand and empathise with her/him. The likeability I can take or leave.

That’s just me.

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