One of the elements that separates good writing from the boiler-plate stuff is the quality of the characters. I remember picking up one of the first local novels ever published in my neck of the woods—one that was being devoured by all my students (think Twilight, but on an even more grass-roots basis and without vampires). It had been recommended to me by one of my lovely young high school students. She’d actually gushed, talking about it.
So I read it. I mean, the thing was printed on fairly good paper and bound in hard covers – how bad could it be? I should have taken a harder look at the cover. It was pink. And there was this hand that had sort of burst through the pink paper – lace at the wrist – holding a single rose.
Yeah. How bad could it be?
What made it even worse was that the book was written by a religious person to religious people for the purpose of making certain points about religious things in a religious context. And it was a romance. (Don’t misunderstand me, here – I am a religious sort myself. I’ve probably done a blog about this, too, somewhere in all this mess.)
So, the poor characters were predestined, sort of. But I’m not speaking spiritually now as much as — the writer had a plot in mind, and the people she had made up were predestined to make it unfold as imagined. And when you are predestined, you only say what you’re supposed to say and react how you are expected to react whether you want to or not, and you don’t get to make any choices on your own. In other words, the book was about puppets, not about characters.
Sometimes, when you set out to write a book, you think you know who the characters are. And maybe you have the whole plot planned out perfectly. I know one author who puts together a notebook for each of her books. She makes maps, does character sketches, and she outlines the plot in great detail. And that’s – you know – one way of doing it. But if you build real characters – complex people with their own ways of seeing things, their own sets of desires – you just might find yourself running into trouble. Because characters like that don’t always want to DO what you want them to do. And sometimes—I know for a fact that this happens—characters simply refuse to do what you want them to do.
Then you have a choice – you can either let the book change around the character, or you can pound a round character into a square hole.
That said, the notebook thing can work – but only if you spend a lot of time getting to know your people. There are exercises for this: you can set yourself questions – 1. What would this guy watch on TV if he were sick on the couch? Or would he watch TV at all? Maybe he’d just spend the day whining. Or watching what goes on out his window. Or reading a book. Or a newspaper. Or sleeping. Would he ever buy a pink shirt? Is he buttoned down? Does he cook for himself? Or does he open cans and eat out of them over the sink? Or maybe he always eats out. But if he does, where would he go, and what would he order? And how would he order it? And would he flirt with the waitress?
You can actually almost write a book just out of the answers, if you go deeply – or widely – enough. Sometimes it helps if you can imagine someone like your character – a face, a body, an attitude. Maybe pick somebody you actually know, and envision that person as you write. But you have to be a little bit careful about that. I mean, just how carefully do we observe the specifics about the people we know? You may find that you’ve dropped even the real people you know unfairly into neat little boxes.
And after you do all this thinking about the people who are coming to life on your pages, there’s one final question you need to ask: is this person, now that you know him, even worth writing about?
I think my traditional process is to start with something I know happened, and then to listen to how the characters react to it. And as I’m writing them, I uncover things I wouldn’t have guessed before I started. As the story goes, it changes for me. The characters reveal themselves through the story, and then dictate the direction of it. Which is all fine and good only if you’re prepared to re-write the entire book several times, educating yourself as to its directions and finer points with each re-write.
The thing is, your people have to breathe. Well, I’m wrong. They don’t have to. I can name several blockbuster books in the last several years populated by very thin, very formulaic little finger puppets, and really, there are many genres that actually depend on these predictable types. (One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed YA is that the characters in them often defy expectation.) And there are rafts of readers – maybe even the ones most easily talked into spending money on books – who prefer character not to make the book too dense. They know what they want to happen, and they want to get right down to it, thank you very much.
One time when we were on a road trip, I started reading this book to G as he drove. Something he’d evidently been getting a big kick out of, because this was, like, the third one he’d read in the series. The hero’s name was Dirk Pitt or something, and I was reading this thing – and after a while, I was crying, because I was laughing so hard. This character was such a MAN. Single handedly pulling helicopters out of lakes, and beating guys up and riding motorcycles and barging magnificently around – the whole nine yards. And all the female characters were gushing window dressings. Ultimately, he made me stop reading; I was laughing too hard.
So, I guess, ultimately, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, who you want to write for, and what publishing houses you are aiming at. There are many houses that turn down the over-qualified, because they basically specialize in popcorn. And make a good living doing it (“Sadly,” she added, knowing it will make her sound snooty).
I’d rather call into being a character that will argue with me than pick one out of a pile of paper dolls, myself. And I’d rather read people than watch puppets. But that’s just me. You know? It’s just me.