Mark Terry

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing 201: CHARACTERIZATION (Conversation)

December 16, 2009

The Divine Ms. O and I continue our conversation today, this time looking at characterization.

Mark: Looking back at our previous conversations on voice, hook, and freshness, it seems clear that they're all involved in characterization. I tend to be very organic when it comes to creating characters and I'm very aware of how each one is, in some way, a part of me, although perhaps just an "enhanced" part of me. There's a layering process. I tend to start with a name. Can't deal with the character without figuring out the name and it needs to resonate with me. I knew Derek's first name, but it took me some sifting to come up with Stillwater. I'm not sure exactly why it resonates with me, although I have some ideas. But first the name has to resonate with me. Then I ask myself what they do, how they came to do what they do, and I usually develop some back story that involves parents, siblings, and education. My main characters are almost always problem solvers, they're very analytical. One question I typically ask of my main character that I don't think most writers ask is: "If they weren't doing what they're doing, what would they rather do?" Because I think most people have dreams that are just that, dreams, whether they want to be a major league baseball player or an opera singer or a world traveler, or, (gulp) a novelist. But knowing that weird bit of trivia helps me find a certain core identity for my main character.

Erica: I start with name and some back story element that makes them unique (for example, in The Roofer, Ava was the daughter of a hitman in the Irish mob, the Westies). Or I start with name and unusual career or element of storyline (Billie Quinn worked in a crime lab AND was the daughter of a mob bookie).

Beyond that, I tend to not be analytical. Once the sidekicks come in and their world starts becoming populated, all the other details seem to drift in on their own and I just make note of them as I write. For example, I was working on a scene last week between two lovers in 2018 as the world is on the brink of collapse. In the scene, you learn her dog's name is Crick (after Watson and Crick), that she drinks wine with her lover each night (to preserve something of their old life), and that she and her Russian lover are contemplating using the empty apartment across the hall to care for their friend who has the virus. You see patter between the two lovers over his ukha (cod soup), which she teases him over. You see them make love and that they have both shorn their heads. And NOT ONE of those elements . . . not a single, solitary one, was in my head when I started writing the scene. I basically brought her home and then him home and wrote what came into my head. But the characterization--the fact that they would do this sort of insane thing and hide a sick person across the hall, that they would both shear off their hair because their work with the virus is more important than vanity, that their dog is named after an atheist and the man who brought the world the double-helix . . . that would all fit with them. Somehow, if you KNOW your characters, it becomes a seamless whole, if that makes sense. Every single element fits. It's just that in my case, I know their "whole" before I know all the details. So I just write.

Mark: As I say, organic. I keep adding layers as the story continues, although because of the types of stories I write, I don't have a lot of time for lengthy back story, so I try to show a lot about my main character by how he behaves. He's got quirks and I try to expand on some of the background. Just a minor detail, for instance, Derek carries a .45. I later comment that it was a gift from the Secretary of Homeland Security, which makes his companion at the time say, "Very sentimental." Derek says, "He told me not to shoot myself in the foot with it." Now, if you know Derek a little bit, and James Johnston, the Secretary, this will make a lot more sense, because Derek is a very reluctant troubleshooter for DHS, but he's the Secretary's go-to guy for sticky situations, although the Secretary (and Derek, for that matter) understand that Derek's a major political liability. That exchange is in the 4th book, but there are little details like that that I'm constantly expanding on. It's a little easier in a series, I think, you create certain details--Derek kayaks, he wears ju-ju beads and a 4-leaf clover and a St. Sebastian medical, when stressed he listens to religious-based classical music, he carries a .45. And although I add details as I go on, I also try to expand and layer the details that are already there, bring in the fact the ju-ju beads were given to him by a friend from Special Forces who got them in Somalia, telling Derek that Derek needed the luck more than he did, finding out that Derek's parents were missionary doctors, for instance. I didn't know these things going in; in a lot of ways the details were character tags, signposts of an inner life, but as I progress I try to bring more depth to those details and that inner life. Now granted, if you're writing standalones you need to figure out how to integrate all the details and the back story without bogging the story down.

Here's a question for you, though. How do you make a character likable?

Erica: Well, what I think of likable and what other people think of likable are often two different things. My characters tend to value loyalty above nearly any other value--and as such they are willing to ignore moral failings. Now, there's a line in the sand, obviously. They would not ignore domestic violence or child abuse. But they will ignore the kind of thing that John Cusack's character spoke of in Gross Pointe Blank, "If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there." I love that sort of nuance of morality.

In general, the likability for me, since I started out writing comedy, comes out in the banter, no matter if the book is dark or comic. I also tend to give my characters sidekicks that pull out their likability. I tend to give my bitchier heroines family members that require real devotion in some way--brothers who are addicts or gamblers . . . fathers who have been to prison. So that you see this aspect that is far and away different from the persona they project to the rest of the world. I tend to think that's important. We all have a public mask/face and a private one. The healthiest people have those two masks match. But healthy people don't make for interesting fiction. So my characters have a public mask that may be difficult or of questionable morality. But their private mask--shown to very few--is going to have a core of some surprise that will make them more likable to the reader.

Mark: I don't worry too much about it. One thing I do think about, however, when I bother to get analytical about it, is an exchange from one of the later-season episodes of West Wing. In it, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) had to expand his duties as head of communications to actually being the Press Secretary and standing at the podium and fielding questions from the press. He was disastrous at it. Toby was a brilliant, idealistic, cranky (wonderful), short-tempered character. Annabeth Schott (Kristin Chenoweth) was supposed to coach him on it. Finally, while walking down the hallway (everybody on West Wing seemed to talk while race-walking somewhere) said, "How do you get dates?" He says, "What?" She says, "How do you get dates? Whatever it is (I'm paraphrasing here), if it's witty conversation, being charming, flirting, whatever it is, you have to use it here."

And I've always thought that was good advice for writers in terms of getting the audience to like/love your characters. Women can be bitchy and still get dates. Guys can be ugly or slobs and still get dates, etc. How? It's not like we can really use good looks in fiction, so we've got to use something else, charm, humor, wit, dialogue, vulnerability... something.

Erica: That's a perfect example. Even the best-drawn villains bring something other than one-note evilness to the table.

The floor is open!


Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Interesting about the likability. Trin is not very likable. He's serious, moody, not a thinker, prone to violence. But he is loyal to his priest, and he is against the Crusade. And most importantly, the most likable character in the book is in love with him. I think that created a trust factor for the reader, seeing Trin through Castile's eyes. And Castile is very likable, charming, witty, and smart. I had a passage in which Castile feels doubt about Trinidad when he sees him going into battle. He sees that sort of vacuous ability for violence some people have and a critter commented that it affected her sympathy for Trinidad. Now, she's big into sympathy and I'm not, but the point is I realized how powerful Castile is in the story there if his doubt translates into readers' doubt.

7:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Great point. When you're using multiple POV, seeing a sometimes unlikable character through someone else's eyes can make them more (or less) likable. Or, for instance, say someone thinks a character is being a real dick for the decisions they're making or how they're treating someone, but once you get inside their head you find out the reasons for that. That can create suspense as well.

7:33 AM  

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