Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Making you characters believable

It´s been way too long since I´ve written about the issue of how to write, so here´s another post on the subject:

Would you read a story about someone you don´t find interesting?

One of the main reasons any person would continue reading a book is that they connect with the characters in some way.

It doesn´t have to be in such a way that the reader finds the character to be similar to themselves. In fact that is rarely the case. But the characters must be described in such a way that:

1. They seem to be alive
2. The reader can recognize some of their own characteristics in the character
3. The reader is intrigued by some of the characteristics that are completely different from the reader´s own characteristics.

That´s why you need to begin with the beginning. Tell your readers about your characters and their back grounds. It´s much easier to understand why a person does what he does if you have that basic information about them. And sometimes, when neither you, the author, or the reader understand a characters actions, at least his actions seem to fit his personality.

How to make you character alive
When I attended college we performed the musical "West Side Story." I played the part of Riff, the leader of "The Jets" and in the end of an act (don´t remember which one, sorry) I and another character were both killed and lay dead on the stage. The best way would have been for the lights to fade away and the curtains to fall, but we performed in the college hall way, so there were no curtains. Instead, we had to sneak out with the lights off so that the audience wouldn´t notice. We had prepared ourselves for this and we knew exactly the right time to move, so that it wouldn´t be too early and ruin the magic moment of silence, but still not so late, that the audience had gotten used to the dark and could see us leaving.

At the opening night we lay there and counted the seconds and at exactly the right moment we moved. But as soon as we got to our feet, someone turned on the lights and there we were: two dead people standing alive in plain sight for everyone to see. It really ruined the moment...

The lesson to be learned here is quite simple: if your character does something that is completely off course to his personality or the circumstances at hand - in this case dead men walking - it ruins the magic and the reader will be sucked through the portal between the makebelieve world and the real world. And if this happens, you can´t expect to be able to bring the reader back.

So, in all respects: keep the magic and live the makebelieve life in your writings. Failure to do so will put off your readers.

Making a connection between reader and character
Among authors there is a saying: show it, don´t tell it. What it means is that instead of explaining a characters personality using a description, it´s much better to show personality with action.

Really, it should be apparent if we consider how we interact with real people. When you meet someone new, you can´t get into their heads and read their minds and you can´t know anything about their history. So what is it that we do instead? Well, we look at their behaviour and listen to what they say.

An example from my short story, "The Mysterious Disappereance of McGrath:"

"McGrath had a bad temper and got into fights with everyone everywhere" would be an explanation, but if the writer chooses to put in some of McGrath´s interactions with other people showing his temper, the story comes more to life, somewhat like this:

View this book on Smashwords"His landlord stood there by the door for a few seconds building up his nerve, which granted McGrath just enough time to get himself seated in his well used armchair before he heard the reluctant tapping on solid wood. He almost thrust the chair through the wall in anger.
“Hmmf…” the frightened man said loosening his tie and gasped, “I…well…it got stuck.” McGrath didn’t re-enter his home, but instead almost flew past his landlord while complaining loudly about all the vultures the world was populated with."

The main reason is that the storyteller, that is: the author, is an alien presence in the book and should be held to an absolute minimum to present the story as real life like as possible.

But! There is one difference between real life and the makebelieve world: time! Living your life has it´s paste and in most cases you don´t get to really know anyone in just a few hours. It takes time. And time you don´t have when reading a book. Here the time passes completely different than in real life and even the paste is different from passage to passage.

So, having said that "show, don´t tell" is very important, sometimes authors forget the first part of the saying, so instead the story will be "don´t tell it." If you don´t use the advantage of writing, meaning that you can actually get into people´s heads and read their minds and that you can get to knwo their history in just a few sentences, you may very well loose your reader.

By the end of the first few chapters you would be lucky to have half of your readers still reading the story.

So always remember to tell the story of your characters, if you want your readers to understand where they are coming from. Your readers do not always have to understand why the character does what it does, but your characters´ actions must always be coherent with their personality and if your reader does not have the basic back ground of your character, they will be absolutely lost trying to determine if the characters´ actions ARE coherent with their personalities.

Why is difference between the personalities of reader and character important?

Well, their are at least two reasons:

1. Reading about yourself really isn´t all that exciting
2. We all tend to be protective of our self understanding

The first one is obvious: if your reader wanted to read about himself, he wouldn´t bother reading something you wrote. He would look up his diary or check out his timeline on Facebook... The key word here is "Booooring!"

We want to be able to connect with the people in the book, but they also must be interesting to us. Interesting people are not like ourselves. And obviously we are walking the fine line of too much/ too little here...

The second reason is more suttle and often, when we read, we don´t think about it. But if you were to read about a person, who seems to be very much like yourself and that person suddenly was in a situation, where he decided to do something immoral or criminal, your subconciousness would register a head on attack on your own person. We don´t like that, do we? It´s okay to be challenged, but not too much. In smaller bits, please...

What do you think?
I´ve now presented you with these basics and they might be helpful to you as you endeavour into writing your next masterpiece! However, these passages may also have the opposite effect, so:

Where do you think the right balance between difference and likeness with the characters is?

Do you always remember to focus on the balance between show and tell?

Is this post helpful at all?

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