Saturday, January 29, 2011

Through the window frame

Have you ever read a book that stayed with you? Have you ever met someone new and been sharply reminded of a character? Those authors wrote characters who seemed so real, they made the leap, at least in your subconscious mind, into reality. They came to life.

By the very nature of fiction, the nature of the media through which we convey the musings of our minds, our characters are limited. Our view comes through a window, and is sometimes distorted... limited... by our own lack of understanding, by the edges of our paradigm. Our stories give our readers a glimpse, a section, of our characters and their world... but to achieve depth, our characters' world must be larger than what we merely see. Our characters must seem real.

Limited characters have their uses. Cameo characters don't need to be fully developed. Characters who enter a story for a moment, the cashier your heroine buys her carton of milk from, the by passer on the street who notices your villain's odd facial tic, need be little more than cardboard cut-outs, faces we catch a glimpse of in passing, easily dismissed and easily forgotten.

Main characters, however, must have more depth, tangibility, a feeling of reality. Your reader must be left feeling if they met the character on the street, they would recognize them and greet them like an old friend. The better you know your characters, the better your portrayals will be. Like an artist, you must study your subject before you begin to paint. Character outlines, character interviews, and lists of characters' traits can help you get to know your fictional people better, but to write truly memorable characters, you'll need to come to an understanding of their motivations, their feelings and fears, their emotional depth.

Take your hero for example. The basic Hero is dashing, strong, honorable. He or she faces danger with a knowing, grim smile. The horse is white, the hair is groomed and flowing, and the teeth are straight. In short... the basic Hero is... boring.

Take that same Hero, and make some changes. Maybe your Hero is a custodian in an elementary school who is minding his own business when a disturbed student unleashes gunfire in a crowded cafeteria.
Maybe your Hero is an executive who has an opportunity to help his young assistant deal with her unplanned pregnancy.
Perhaps your Hero is a youth who must travel through the jungles of a tropical setting to retrieve needed medical supplies for the village leader, a man who has bullied her family her entire life.

What motivates each of these characters to follow their Hero Journey?
How does the custodian react to the shooting, and why? Does he throw himself in front of a child instinctively because she reminds him of his younger sister who perished in an accident when he was a child?
Does the executive help the young woman because his own mother was a struggling single parent?
Does the young woman make the journey to help the chief to uphold the honor of her father?

Strong characters must have strong motivations. Understand what drives your character, what makes them unique, and you will write characters your readers won't soon forget.

Happy writing!

Rejoicing in the day,