Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Starring … Your Characters

There's just something about those memorable characters that jump off the page and endear themselves to your heart. It's part, they aren't just cardboard cutouts or mechanical robots; it's the one where they're almost human which catch our attention. They have flaws we can relate to, even sympathize with. They aren't all my groin is making all my decisions, but are faced with real issues. Strong or weak. The existential 'knight in shining armor' or the 'heroine in distress' who give the reader insight into their world, these are the characters we're most likely to remember.

I can tell you the first romance I ever read that opened my eyes to what was possible with characters. I can even tell you the character – Nick Sinclair. Yep, I'm talking Judith McNaught's, Double Standards. Rich, powerful, self-made millionaire who was disgustingly 80s, but then again, it was the 80s. Jaded, manipulative and in a very strange way, a true hero.

There's no telling how many times I read the book, absorbing the story, considering how great the characters were together. When I started writing romance, that's what I wanted to create. Characters who leapt off the page and at times made me want to tear my hair out. In some cases I succeeded, in others – not so much. The fact was I had to start where all great characters start – with them.

Notoriously, I am a big character profiler. I want to know how they tick and what makes them so deliciously imperfect and yet great at the same time. So, I constantly pour over my character profile, staring at it, going "If my character is in this position, how would they act?" Once I'm familiar with them, I go into their arcs, GMC and all the goodness that is emotional drive.

In the end it comes down to the character. Who they are, and what makes them great. How the reader relates to them and how they connect with the rest of the story.

Yesterday, I was reminded of one of my first short stories and how much frustration I had with my characters. It took a very good friend of mine to sit me down and say, "Shut up, TJ, and do the work." Okay, so I was a bit stunned, but he was right. I hadn't invested in them because I wanted the next credit. In those days, it was all about making me feel bigger because I actually determined who I was by the number of sales I made. My friend, plus my editor, plus a few internal rants showed me, it wasn't about the number of stories I sold but the quality which only I could create.

So today, I do the slug work. I learned my lesson. Character Profiles. Character Arcs. GMC. Emotional Drive. The whole nine-yards of it.

Never forget that this is a craft, and however you draw your characters, do it well. After all, they star in your story.

Time for you to shout back. What was the first book you ever read that made an impression on you? Was it so good, you'd go back to that author just cause of that first story?

Until next Tuesday, cheers and happy writing,



Anonymous said...

Very interesting and I agree--the more detail the more real the character becomes, until they're practically talking to you (either that or they're not talking) and it's time for a break!
Okay, the first book that made an impression: Jane Eyre! I mean--!!! I felt what Jane was going through--at Lowood and then later on at Gateshead Hall, I think it was-- feeling plain and insignficant, feeling deep passion for a troubled man--(and I was a very young thirteen)!
I felt it because Charlotte Bronte knew how to write the characters.
She put me there. I saw the moors, the house, I heard someone screaming (in the tower) and it frightened me and so on.
The author made me empathize with the characters but totally--how she did it was due to skill but also due to the characters, being alive WITHIN her.
That was the book that made the most overwhelming impression on me I have to say.

Sandy said...

Great post, T.J.

I don't think I can name any one book because there have been so many that could draw me into their stories with their characters.

I can remember an author named Mary J. Holmes from my grandmother's library. She transported me to a different time with Maggie Miller and Ethelyne's Mistake, Girl of the Limberlost, all books from my grandmother's library. Almost every book I've read has drawn me in some way.

I want my characters drawn so well that people have a hard time forgetting the book. Your friend was right, T.J. Just do it. Tell him, I've learned from him to. I've been wanting to speed up and write faster, too, so I can sell more.

What we need to remember is that everything comes in it's own time. That's a tough one. Smile.

Z(Aasiyah/Nolwynn) said...

Very good post, T.J.

The first book I read and that left an indelible impression on me was Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I was all of 11 at the time, and it was my father's way of easing this shy young girl into womanhood, by presenting her to these two women so different but who embody almost all of what young women the world over feel when feelings and emotion take a prominent place in their lives. I went on to read Pride and Prejudice, not so well received by Dad coz Elizabeth was kind of a smartmouth and Mom was wary of letting me turn into a full-blown one too! But hey, it was Austen, so it went down well in the end.

The next story I remember making an impact was A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, the first Indian-culture-centred book I read. I was 20 at the time, very pregnant and not able to move much, which may be why I killed down the 1400 page book in less than a couple of weeks. Lasting impression by the matriarch in there, Mrs Rupa Mehra! Echoes of my own aunts, a woman I so 'got' because she is so much an Indian mom, despite the story taking place circa 1940. I wanted my characters to evoke the kind of reaction she did in me, like this recognition by people of a certain culture. I later branched to making all my characters, whether cultural or not, have this universal human appeal that resonates with all and sundry.

I recently came upon Judith McNaught, Night Whispers, where the hero Noah Maitland, a tycoon and millionnaire is this apparently blase and reserved man who embodies to me, the true hero because he is a normal man put in normal circumstances but he emerges above the lot in the way he deals with it all.

Finally, the latest to date to hit home is the character of Cartimandua, first High Queen of Britain circa AD 40, presented in the novel Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine. I loved the historical depiction and the way the story centred on the queen's life but all while mingling and weaving it with a very contemporary plot, elements of paranormal and myth and legends.

There you, the characters who have most impressed me! I hope to put across the same kind of vibe in my works.



Anonymous said...

I just mentioned the first novel that had such an impact, but actually there is one I forgot about that made the greatest impact!

1984 by George Orwell. I know I read it in school I was probably about twelve--that made a huge impact on me to the extent that I never forgot Winston Smith and the telescreens and the nightmare world of Big Brother or that someone seemingly a friend (two actually in the novel) can become your worst enemy.
Children that report their parents to the state, Big Brother and the hate pep rallies--all unforgettable elements.

And you know, if I think about it, I guess that's when the science fiction bug really bit!
Animal Farm followed with other school musts: Dickens, Hardy and so on.

You know I realized thinking about it I had forgotten all about 1984--but if I had to choose one novel that perhaps made sci fi unforgettable to me it would be that.

I think I always admired books with knock-you-in-the-head drama and characters that exist in nightmare worlds where basic survival is seemingly impossible yet it’s undertaken.

When I think about the characters I’m writing about I envision a nightmare world basically that they have to survive in. I suppose it’s connected to books like 1984! Never would have made the connection, thank you ladies!
With all due respect to Jane Eyre--I guess it impacted me along romantic growing up lines, where as these novels impacted me differently.

Sorry for jumping in twice--but I really did want to say this!

Angela Guillaume said...

There are so many books that have made an impact on me over the years. It took your blog for me to realize that those first books had to contain some sort of moral dilemma that the main characters faced. Two books that come to mind are Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and The Power and The Glory by Graham Green. I was taken in by the paradox of two characters that were seemingly one way but deep down were depicted as totally different. You have the ascetic military man in the latter book - clean, organized, neat, yet with a heart of stone. Then you had the priest on the other - a rogue who even went against his church's tenets by taking lovers, yet, really and truly, he was human and compassionate. These are REAL characters to me - flawed in many ways and perfect in others.

Then it took a great person who entered my life, a wonderful mentor (you know who you are)to tell me that with one manuscript I'd committed the greatest sin of all - I'd betrayed my characters by making them fit a certain "publishing mold". Creating crotch thinkers was never in my aspirations, yet, the game is the game and I thought to bend my rules to adjust to it. Wrong! I so agree with you TJ that if nothing else, the characters must be the "stars". They are the ones, with their emotional drive, to give your book meaning.

Thanks for the blog.


Z(Aasiyah/Nolwynn) said...

You know, I've been thinking and another book struck me as having had an impact. I didn't think of it at first because it's children literature, but I devoured it:

Sophie's Misfortunes (Les malheurs de Sophie) by la Comtesse de Segur.

There was this world of 'perfect little girls (later on portrayed in Les Petites Filles Modeles, by the same author, that I also devoured over and over!) and how human and much a 'normal' child Sophie was, trying hard to be perfect by her mother's and society's standards but her overactive imagination and reckless streak always got her into trouble. Loved that book. I think all little girls should read it.



Sandy said...

Another book that made an impact on me is The Christmas Carol.