Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Characters

Working on the new book, I've been thinking a lot about characters lately: what makes a good character, why you need a good a character, how you get that character to breathe without it dissolving into a mess of ticks and eccentricities that are a lazy or incompetent writer's shorthand.

Now there's good shorthand and bad shorthand. I hate reading a book that turns out to be the skeleton of a screenplay. A lot of very popular writers write lousy characters. They have clever, even ingenious plots, lots of great ideas that make a compelling jacket blurb or a query hook, but their characters lay there like poppets or manikins, waiting for someone to slip inside their lifeless skins and do the heavy lifting.

Then there are writers who use brevity to their advantage, who can introduce a character that you immediately see, and with a few words, a few deft phrases, make that character into a compelling, believable, real person.

The toughest thing, of course, is motivation. If you have a real person, the writer has to make you believe that everything that person does makes internal sense. The quickest way to get me to close a book or turn off a television is to present a character that does something I know they would never do. Often it's in service of the plot. I hate the deus ex machina, and I hate making a character do something they would never do just because you couldn't figure out a way around forcing them to do it. For me, that's the one unforgivable sin. Go back and rewrite the whole fucking thing, but for dog's sake, don't just throw up your hands and think to yourself, "I've drawn myself into a corner. Maybe nobody will notice."

Right now I'm reading Find Me, the latest of the Mallory series by Carol O'Connell. Besides being a brilliant plotter, O'Connell is an absolute master of character. Her triumvirate of main characters -- Riker, Charles Butler, and Mallory herself -- are always constant, but always surprising. Even when what those characters do makes no sense, it makes perfect sense. The other great thing about her writing is she can, in a paragraph, tell you everything you need to know about a character for it to spring into your mind, fully-formed. She has such an exquisite economy of words.

In addition to rereading some of my favorite authors, I've been taking a look at my favorite television characters and why they're good characters, why I find myself wanting to spend time with them, why I want to believe them. I'm interested in how you avoid making a character a caricature. Of course a great deal of that is predicated on the skill of the actor, but at least half of it is the skill of the writer. The poor, unsung TV writer. I've found it very helpful in helping me flesh out the bios and the sketches of the people I hope will populate the new novel. I write things in my head very visually, so the TV exercise has been quite illuminating in thinking about character development.

Since I lost my improv writing group when I left the bohemian West for the desultory South, I'm amusing myself with my own improv exercises, and in a post or two, I'm going to pick apart my favorite TV characters and see why I care about them.

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