Bringing Characters to Life

Game of Thrones returned to HBO with a vengeance this week, and it got me thinking of those poor, unfortunate souls who earn their living bringing writers’ characters to life.

Disclaimer: I don’t really feel sorry for actors. They’re living their dream, and that’s amazing. We should all be so lucky.

Damn, he's cool.

Game of Thrones lends itself pretty easily to criticism of casting because we fans of George R. R. Martin’s novels are so rabid. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion? Amazing. Unbelievable. He plays the character exactly as written, smart, witty, bitter, but with an added layer of kindness that makes Tyrion the most admirable on the show. Sean Bean as Eddard Stark? Heartbreaking, and so perfectly noble he could never exist in that universe.

Michelle Fairley as Catelyn? Um… Not so much. The fan-community was thrilled back when we all thought it would be Jennifer Ehle, but somehow or another that fell apart, and we were left with an actress who plays Catelyn as a shrill, shrewish mother and wife with few redeeming qualities. (Disagree with me, if you dare.) While the written character may tend a bit toward the harridan on the shades-of-wifeliness-scale, she has a core of steel that is strong, not brittle. TV Catelyn always seems one nagging-bout away from stamping her foot and crying.

It got me wondering how I would like to see my characters portrayed—dare to dream, after all. I’m not one of those writers who has my novel cast right down to the last extra from the very first draft of the very first chapter. I have no specific actor in mind.

My toothbrush... it talks?

But my characters are so vivid in my imagination that sometimes I wonder how I would react if they suddenly appeared on my doorstep in Stranger than Fiction fashion? Would I scream and throw something at them? Would I be friends with them? Conversely, how would they feel about me? Hate me for my cruelty? Worship me as their goddess?

Maybe I have too much free time on my hands.

George R. R. Martin‘s characters would probably tremble in fear and hatred before him.

Do you think about these things, fellow writers? Who would portray your characters? Would you like to see your characters literally come to life? And—most importantly—who would you have cast to play Catelyn Stark?

Personality Makeover

Yesterday I gave a character a personality makeover.

He and my protagonist were supposed to have chemistry. (Chemistry will probably get a blog post all its own. Because WTH do I mean by chemistry?) There’s more between them than just chemistry, but I’m not going to tell you all about it just now. In spite of my best intentions, though, he and Mitzy just had nothing. Zip. Blah. There was no spark between them.

I got to thinking about it, and I realized that the two characters just had nothing in common. They’re supposed to be friends (or more..?), but their relationship was a working one, a partnership born of convenience, not one of true admiration or liking. They didn’t even have any shared interests.

This happens sometimes. Characters just plain don’t click. On Friends, the writers made the mistake of giving Joey and Rachel a more-than-friends relationship, after nine years of sexual tension and history between Ross and Rachel. It just didn’t work, to the degree that the writers actually wrote the wrongness of that relationship into the show. After their first real date, whenever Joey tried to kiss or touch Rachel, she ended up slapping him: funny as a bit, but also a result of their lack of chemistry. It was just wrong.

My characters aren’t meant to have perfect chemistry, but they are meant to be friends. So what’s an author to do, when she discovers her characters don’t click?

Why, give the less-important character a personality makeover, of course!

I’m still in revision-mode, so I’m able to do this. A few slight alterations to the male character (which of course will lead to some significant scene rewrites), and he will have more in common with my better-developed protagonist. Their dialogue will lighten up, their interactions will be sexier, and Mr. Relationship-man will have a reason to stick around once he no longer needs my protagonist as a contact.

You can’t force two people to have chemistry, even when they’re fictional. Sometimes two personalities just don’t mesh, and that’s okay.

Luckily, when they’re fictional, you can change their personalities.

Have you ever had to revamp a character’s personality to make a plot-point work or to make him click with another character?

Favorite Characters

What do our favorite characters say about us?

No, not behind our backs, silly person. They’re fictional! I mean, why do we like the characters that we, as individuals, like? Is it because we can relate to our favorite character? Is it because they’re someone we’d like to be friends with? Or is it some ineffable combination of reasons that we’ll never know?

I got to thinking about this while reading The Wheel of Time books. I think I quit the series the first time in part because a character I really liked (Perrin) became involved with a character I really disliked (Faile). But what about those imaginary people gave me a strong enough opinion to even care who they dated? …other than a book-character crush, which I totally had (have?) on Perrin.

Take Anya. She’s my favorite character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Sorry for all the Buffy references lately. I’m still sick in bed and having a marathon.) But why is she my favorite? I’m not exactly “newly human and strangely literal.” I have no experience working as a vengeance demon, though I do understand her penchant for retail work—though I don’t love money as much as she does. She’s a damn good singer and scared of bunnies, which makes me giggle. And she’s very pretty, but I don’t really have a crush on her. She is very funny, and funny in a way I can appreciate. 
But Xander’s funny, too, as are most of the characters. So why does Anya appeal to me more than the rest?
Meanwhile, my fiance likes Giles (probably because he can relate to Giles) and Willow (she’s a cute, funny redhead). Maybe you like Tara, reader, or someone else entirely.
How about Star Wars? I never really liked Han Solo, even though everyone else seems to find him completely cool. Even when I was twelve I thought he was an arrogant, irresponsible jerk—sometimes you just can’t change a first impression. I loved Luke, though, and not in a “he’s dreamy” way. I pretty much wanted to be him, but, you know, female.
So it that the winning combination, then? A mix of traits we like and traits we admire? I don’t really think so, because frequently we like the baddies more than the good characters. Evil Angel is much more fun than regular Angel, after all.
Any thoughts? What makes your favorite characters your favorites?

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?