Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What Do I Think Goes Into Making Characters Interesting?

Since I started this boulder rolling downhill with talking about how I create my characters I figured I’d keep right on going a talk for a bit about what I think goes into making characters interesting and how I do it. As always, feel free to steal any of this you think will help and anything you think is bullshit, keep it to yourself. Okay? Okay. Have a seat and we’ll jaw jack for a bit.

For me, a story begins and ends with character. If the characters aren't interesting and if what they're doing doesn't interest me I don't care how mind-blowing the ideas behind the story is. There are writers who can pull off an idea driven story and I've read many of those over the years but as a rule, those types of stories don't put the sugar in my coffee. I'm more drawn to character driven stories.

And the characters don't have to be likable  In fact, I'm more intrigued when a writer can present me with an unlikable character and during the course of the story I grow to sympathize with him or her. My DIAMONDBACK novel; “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time” was partially an exercise to see if I could write a novel length story where 99% percent of the characters were backstabbing, unrepentant cold-blooded bastards (especially the lead character) and still make them compelling characters you wanted to know more about and find out what happens to them.

That's why most of the time when you start to read a story of mine, I'll open with the character doing whatever it is he does best. Dillon is a globetrotting adventurer so I'll usually start a story with him in the middle of an adventure. If I write a story where a murderer is the lead character, I'll start with him murdering somebody. For me, nothing gets you into a character faster than showing him or her doing whatever it is they do. And I can do that because before I sit down to write I know the lead character so well that a lot of the indecision about what they would do in a given situation is gone. And I sincerely believe you have to know your characters well before you sit down to write and you have to care about them one way or another because as a writer you're the first audience for your story and if it's not interesting and exciting to you then why should it excite or interest a reader?

But all this felgercarb isn't getting into the meat of what you want to hear: what I think makes a good fictional character. Okay, here we go:

First of all, the character has to be interesting enough for me to want to care about what happens to him and since I'm a picky son of a bitch, you don't have a lot of time to make me care. Six pages of description about the main character lying in bed watching the dust motes in the brilliant yellow morning sunshine is going to make me throw the book on my desk and go upstairs to watch "The Walking Dead” or "Arrow"

The character has to do things that are believable in the context of the world and situation he's placed in. In my Dillon stories I have the character do things that would be outrageous in Real Life but in the context of the world I've created for him, which is a pulp action/adventure world that is larger than life than ours, what he does is plausible. It also helps if the writer can convey his story in an entertaining manner that doesn't make me wish I was reading 'Silas Marner'.

How about raising the emotional stakes for a character? There's a lot of ways to do it but the one I like is that I take away the choices my main character has until there's no course left to him but one.

Take DILLON AND THE VOICE OF ODIN for example: when the story starts, Dillon has a lot of choices and a lot of ways to go. During the course of the story he's saddled with a young woman who's safety he becomes responsible for, he's hunted by the bad guys and midway through the book, even the good guys are after him. He's cut off from his friends and he's got nothing but a howling pack of enemies chasing him hinter and yon.

Each and every one of those points named above represents a choice Dillon has to make. Sure, he doesn't have to take care of Kris Quinlan but he decides to. And that means he not only has to look after his own life but hers as well. Sure, he could cut a deal with the bad guys for the opal ring that is the book's MacGuffin but if the bad guys get it a lot of innocent people will die. And as we see later on in the novel Dillon has seen more than his share of innocents die. And based on that past experience he makes another choice. One that sends him on the run across Europe. Later on he makes another choice that has him pursued by Her Majesty's Secret Service who send their best gunslingers after him. And so he has to run again. In fact, even though Dillon's our hero he spends 75% of the book running from everybody until he has no choice left but to cut a deal and go after The Big Bad of the story to save his own ass and the world's.

But it took me 75% of the book to get Dillon to that point where a reader would nod his head and say; "Yeah, I can see why he's got no choice but to go after Odin." And that's because gradually I took away every chance he had to walk away from the whole bloody business and he was left with only one: to go after the bad guy.

That's how I like to do it, anyway. My thing with writing is motivation: if you don't give me a good solid reason for why your characters are doing what they're doing, you've lost me. That's why I consider 90% of horror movies comedies because you'd have to be a brain dead idiot to do what people in horror movies do and I try my best to stay away from brain dead idiots. And I try not to write about brain dead idiots. Well, only on purpose, anyway.

So that's how I like to raise the emotional stake for my characters: I like taking away the choices they have. The more choices I take away from them, the more pressure they're under and the more conflict and tension is generated in the story itself among the characters.

That's all I've got for now. Thanks for stopping by and keeping me company for a bit. Come on back by soon, okay?

Friday, March 22, 2013

How I Create My Characters (For Better or For Worse)

First off, I don't think any writer sits down saying: "Today I am going to create a memorable character." Any more than he can sit down and say "Today I am going to write a memorable novel." Only the kindness of readers and the passage of time can judge the memorability of a writer's work.

When I set out to create characters I do according to whatever type of story it is I'm writing at the time and I tend to build them the same way whether it's my supernatural western gunslinger Sebastian Red or my family man superspy Jackson Rush or the enigmatic urban hitman Diamondback Vogel. I dig out my Character Profile which contains about 30 questions dealing with that character's background, where and when he was born, his parents, where he was schooled, what he likes to eat, his sexual preferences and a whole bunch of other stuff that may not seem important but to me it is.

By the time I'm finished filling out The Character Profile I've got 12 to 15 pages of solid information about the character I'm dealing with. Information that gives me a powerful tool since I don't have to stop and wonder how that character would act in a certain situation. How much of this information actually finds its way into the actual body of the story? Not as much as you might think. But that's not what's important to me. If there's no reason in the story why you should know who Jackson Rush lost his virginity to at age 18 then why should I tell you? But I know and in my mind it gives the character weight. He's not just a vague shadow I'm pushing around at my whim. By the time I've finished The Character Profile hopefully he's taken on his own life and begun talking to me, relating events that have happened to him that I'm just recording. That's when I know that I've created an actual character and not just a blow up figure.

Should you do a Character Profile? I dunno. I'm a big believer in every writer finding his own best way of working. What works for me may not work for you. But I find it almost impossible to start writing a story without knowing my main character inside and out. Once I know that, everything clicks into place with little difficulty. I wrote the Dillon novels with just a few scenes and vague ideas of how I was going to piece them together but since I know Dillon as well (in some cases better than) as members of my own family, I trusted him to fill in the spaces and he did in spectacular fashion. I just relaxed and let him tell me how the story went. 

You may think I'm bullshitting you but it's true: whenever I sit down to write Dillon it seems as if he's just dropped off notes about what he's been doing lately and I'm just transcribing them. But maybe you don't want to or don't need to do all that. It's up to you to find what works your machinery and gets it humming.

How about supporting characters? Do I do a Character Profile for them? Depends. If they're major supporting characters like Dillon's partner Eli Creed or Diamondback's rival Nickleby LaLoosh, yeah. For other characters I do an abbreviated CP of anywhere from five to ten questions and for minor characters I don't even bother.

And even doing all that work on that character won't guarantee that they'll be memorable or even interesting. Take a look at Diamondback Vogel for instance. After I spent about two solid weeks of work on all the main characters I felt especially proud of the work I had done on him and thought he'd be well received. Hah. Turns out that two supporting characters, Toulon and Nickleby LaLoosh were more popular than Diamondback. And during the course of writing the first Diamondback novel, I had to change the ending since Nickleby LaLoosh took over and absolutely refused to nicely die at the end like he was supposed to. You see, by then he had started talking to me about what he wanted to do and like an idiot I listened.

But it's all good. That's part of the fun of writing and why I don't write detailed outlines and get myself locked into solid ideas of what has to happen in Chapter 11 and if it doesn't, I chisel it into shape. It's much more fun when the characters start taking an active part in their own story and arguing with me as to what they'd like to see and the story grows organically as I discover new things about the characters and they surprise and amaze me with what they do.

And if you’re still interested, here’s the questions I use for my Character Profile:

Master Character Profile For:
Country/Place of Birth:
Color Hair/Eyes:
Educational Background:
Martial Status:
Ambition In Life:
Strongest Character Trait:
Weakest Character Trait:
Bad Habits:
General Characteristics:
Mental Characteristics:
Physical Characteristics:
Special Skills:
Current Lifestyle:
What Others Notice About Him/Her First:
Fighting Skills:

Kickin' The Willy Bobo With...BERTRAM GIBBS

DF: Who is Bertram Gibbs? Bertram Gibbs: Husband, father, film, comic book, television, Broadway collector and enthusiast. Researcher of ...