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Monday, June 25, 2007

Characters Don't Live in a Vacuum/Layering

Summer Write!
Here's some more on Characters and why we love/hate them.

What is it about your favorite characters that draw you to them? Are they flamboyant or loners or happy-go-lucky or stick-in-the-muds? Are they Debbie Downers or Susie Sunshine? On a different note, who is the villain who stayed with you long after you finished the book? Did you hate or fear him? Did he provoke emotions in you? If he did, the writer did her job.

Do the hero/heroine have character quirks, are they flawed somewhat in a way that has the reader rooting for and caring about them? Make your main characters three-dimensional. Give them traits that ring true. Know them as much as you can BEFORE writing them. No one is perfect in real life and in romance writing, often it’s the physical or emotional flaws that create the story or conflict. At the very least, their flaws will enhance the story. If we don’t care about the characters, we don’t care about the story.

Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their environment. Character traits are influenced by culture, location, occupation and the historical period. Their behavior, attitudes, expressiveness, philosophy are all influenced by their background. What religion are they? How much education did they receive? What is their social standing? And so on. All this greatly influences WHO they are.

Characters need to be consistent, but that doesn’t mean they are stereotypes or predicable. Their CORE personality defines them. If they deviate from their CORE, they may come across as incredible (and I mean unbelievable), their actions won’t make sense. The reader won’t buy the situation you’ve put them in, making you as a writer lose credibility. I once got a rejection where my editor didn’t buy what my hero was doing. It was inconsistent to the character I had created. When building a character, start with broad strokes, make them true and consistent then fill in the details; those character quirks, qualities of emotion, values and attitudes that make them interesting, unique and special.

In essence, LAYER your character, giving him or her many facets to their personality. Often you have to actually write many chapters, for me it’s usually 3, before you can really get a good handle on the characters. You’ll know the basics about them, but perhaps you won’t know some of the more interesting things that make the story work.

When I was writing Between the CEO's Sheets, my June Desire, I knew something about Gina and Wade's relationship in the past. I knew they'd fallen in love nine years prior and I knew that Wade didn't fall in love easily. Gina had broken his heart, but Wade wasn't a man to show his emotions. So when they reconnected nine years later, he had revenge and payback on his mind. I also knew he felt bitterness toward his father for abandoning his family in favor of building his beloved company, Triple B. But I had to tie those emotions into his story with Gina in order to really see who he was.

Gina came to Wade out of desperation. She'd held a secret for many years and sacrificed her love of Wade to protect him all those years ago. Gina was a character who'd been knocked down a few times in her life. She had the courage to stand up again and again. I knew Gina had to be really strong to be a match for Wade. So, here we have a heroine who'd had a great life and future taken away from her as a young woman when her parents died. She'd been forced to leave a wonderful man behind and start a new life for herself in another city. Gina had a fear of the water and I knew, no matter how much Wade wanted revenge, he would never prey on those fears. Instead, I knew that Wade had to be the one to help her overcome them. Even when Wade thinks the worst of Gina, he would not take ill advantage of her.

I knew Wade was stubborn. He'd felt he'd been wronged in life. He was a good brother, a hard-driving but fair businessman. He was a man who protected his heart. He grew up hating his father. The more I wrote about him, the more I understood him. He came to life and became a great character- one we'd seen first in Bunking Down with the Boss as Sam's brother. I

If you think of the movie, Jerry McGuire -- Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger have a great first meet in the airport, where she is frantically looking for her young son, who had wandered off. What woman can’t relate to that feeling? Immediately we like her. Immediately we feel her unease. She can't find her son. This is a great device to gain instant sympathy for a character. Put them in a precarious situation from the get-go. Make it fun, or serious, or dangerous, but make it INTERESTING .

This movie is a great example of characterization. Jerry McGuire is a hero, a good guy, but he’s so flawed that the heroine can’t help but see it. There’s this great line where she says to her disapproving sister, “I love him for the man he wants to be. I love him for the man he almost is.” The movie was successful for many reasons, but the one reason it stands out is that there is character growth. We see a change in Tom Cruise’s character, it’s gradual, and it really doesn’t hit home until the very end of the story when he achieves his goal, both monetarily and professionally, but feels at a complete loss because he has no one to share his success with. He goes home and lays his heart on the line to his wife.(something he was never able to do in the past) In this movie, we see facets of each character which clearly defines them. Layering the characters, makes them believeable.

We are the sum total of all of our life's experiences, whether good or bad. We are molded by events in our lives. Some authors write a character trait list. This is a good exercise to see how well you know the characters. For me, I write three chapters and the characters tell me who they are. They speak to me. It's best put this way:Anne Lamott, in her book, “Bird by Bird” says of characters: “Just don’t pretend to know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple. "

Next up on the blog: Traits of the very Alpha Male.

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