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?

4 comments:

  1. I'd be interested in your take on a horror story, where the characters do not act like brain dead idiots. It might be a short story ...

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've always wanted to write a haunted house story but I have a hard time coming up with anything that could top THE SHINING, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE or THE HAUNTING which I consider to be the greatest haunted house stories of all time and unless I think I can bring something new to the genre I'd rather not even try.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good article! I agree with a lot of your points and I like the way you think!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Brian. Your thoughts and comments are much appreciated!

      Delete