Imaginary Friends

I refer to my characters as imaginary friends. They are, aren’t they? I spend more time with them than I do with plenty of my real-world friends. I spend my work hours with them, so they’re also my coworkers. I guide them through the worst times of their lives, and some of them have seen me through some rough times, as well.

It’s a pretty twisted relationship, though. I make them do things that won’t end well for them. I destroy their relationships, their careers, their homes. I’m not one for the too-easy happy ending, so things rarely turn out well for them. I refuse to give them a break.

But who are they? Where do they come from? How have they become real people to me?

Jim says five things help you build interesting characters: exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, and empathy.

Exaggeration and exotic position are two ways of making your characters stand out. I’ll put my current protagonist on the pedestal (which is how she likes it, anyway): Mitzy Morgan is exaggerated both in her addiction to alcohol and in her spoiled-brat ways. Her old money snobbery and her alcoholism are exaggerated, sure, but she’s fiction: the exaggeration makes her amusing.

Her exotic position is not her job as a detective. Nope, she’s a detective who got transferred from her former job because she… well… I can’t give everything away, now can I? But she also has an exotic position because she has a rare magical talent: she sees magic. This gives her a leg-up in investigating, but it’s also a nuisance because people expect a lot from her.

Introduction is less about the character and more about you. Jim says:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you’ll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I’m only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.

A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.

I introduce Mitzy on the job, looking for missing magic around the body of a girl drowned in a bathtub full of expensive martini fixings. Exaggerated? Sure. Memorable? Probably. But it ties all her characteristics and a couple of plot points together right from the start.

Verisimilitude probably deserves its own blog post. I’m going to skim this one for now and just leave you with Jim’s take:

When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.

The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.

Mitzy gains verisimilitude in how she deals with the situation: as the plot builds and situations get worse, she drinks more. A low point for her is when another character forces her to sober up. But, like I said, we’ll come back to verisimilitude in another blog post.

Empathy is the key. If you can’t win a reader over to your character’s side, you are, in technical terms, screwed.

I like unlikable characters. I think a Scarlett O’Hara is much more fun to read than a Melanie Hamilton. We all love Melanie, but a book about her would be pretty dull. Unlikable characters need to have redeeming traits, though, otherwise readers get turned off to them pretty quickly.

For Mitzy, it’s the vulnerability she has from feeling she doesn’t live up to her role models’ expectations. For Scarlett, it’s her tenacity and passion.

I don’t want to get sidetracked too far, but Katniss in The Hunger Games didn’t strike that much empathy in me, and that’s why I only read the first book. She’s tough, sure, and I admire her for going to such lengths to save her sister. But she uses people right and left, and she’s wishy-washy about knowing her own heart.

Empathy is tough because it depends so much on your reader. Obviously other people empathize with Katniss, or the books wouldn’t be so popular.

 If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It’s what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

Like V-Factor, empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader’s emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

So, there you have it. Exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, empathy. What works best for you when designing the perfect imaginary friend?

Pigeonholing Your Characters

Wow, it sounds like a bad thing when I put it that way in the title. And the first time I heard this technique described, I thought it was stupid. I still do, sort of.

Something like two years ago, my fiance suggested I assign descriptions to each of my characters and always stick with them—one character could be catlike, another rugged, still another perky. And whenever I would describe a particular character, I would always use the same descriptors and metaphors.

I scoffed and said no way.

Then, this summer, when I was reading over Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal, I came across this very technique, described as tags and traits in his post about Characters:

TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you’re putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character…

TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.

When I saw it again, I dismissed it as idiotic and annoying for the reader. For example, I love J. K. Rowling, but I get so sick of hearing about Ron’s long nose and freckles. Ginny’s bright brown eyes start to bug me. And don’t even get me started on Harry’s green eyes and untidy hair. Even Harry got tired of hearing about them.

Here’s what’s irritating about those descriptions: I REMEMBER THEM. As much as it irks me to reread the same imagery, it does a good job of planting the characters in our brains.

And the really, deeply annoying thing? Last week, I caught myself writing this way unconsciously. A character made her last entrance in my book, and I again used the word “immaculate” to describe her appearance. I didn’t even notice that I’d done it until I reread the paragraph.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d been doing it the whole time. Apparently, tags and traits worm their way into the subconscious so deeply that you use them without even wanting to do so.

Have you ever conditioned your readers like this? Was it deliberate, or did you realize you’ve been conditioned to condition?