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?

Rhett, how you do run on…

Or: What I’ve Learned about Writing from Gone with the Wind.

I read this book at about this time every year, so often that the ink of my copy is rubbing away like the text of a newspaper. Every time I read it, I spend more time than I care to admit wondering whether I’m more Scarlett or Melanie… unfortunately, this year, I’ve come down on the Scarlett side. Again. Someday I’ll make it to Melanie, though.

But in addition to my sad, pseudo-pop-psychology analysis,  reading it so frequently has also taught me a number of things about writing.

Warning: what follows is a very long, pedantic essay.

1. Characters are people, not plot devices.
Although way too much time has been spent studying the archetypes in Gone with the Wind, dwelling on that analysis takes something away from the characters as individuals. Call me crazy, but characters — my own and my favorites in other novels — are real; I talk to them, admire them, interact with them… maybe I should consider this in my improvised self-analysis, eh? But if you spend too much time looking at them as archetypes, thinking about the inherent plot arcs and predetermined actions, you lose sight of some of the novel’s more touching moments. For instance, when Rhett lets his concern for Scarlett show, on a very few occasions, she responds meekly and lets him care for her… causing him, naturally, to tease her about it and her to demand his immediate departure. Still, those are  lovely moments, made all the more special because it’s unexpected to see such gentleness in a so-called seductress. My own protagonist, Eva, is cast in Scarlett’s mold, but I work very hard to create a childlike faith and stubbornness to make her more than a skeletal archetype.

This lesson has a part B. Midway through the novel, at the Scarlett’s lowest point, when she simply cannot carry the weight of the crumbling Tara and her collapsing family, Will Benteen comes on the scene. “Cracker”-born Will takes much of the burden from Scarlett’s frustrated shoulders, and, bluntly put, serves as the plot device that allows her to flit off to Atlanta and pursue marriage and money… But for Scarlett, those two things are redundant. Every time I read Will’s entrance I cringe, because he has no purpose as a person. He does nothing but enable the plot. I’m currently writing a character who I fear falls into this category. I may have to backtrack and introduce her sooner to avoid the Will Benteen fallacy.

2. Sometimes telling is good, too.
Basic writing lesson: Show, don’t tell. But Gone with the Wind might just be the exception. I could gush about Margaret Mitchell’s descriptive ‘telling’ passages, proof that skillful omniscient narration can work as well as showing through action or dialogue.  The opening paragraph speaks for itself:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.”

In one paragraph, Scarlett’s appearance and personality meld, showing you not quite the whole woman but enough to compel interest. This style may not be in vogue anymore, but it sure as hell is effective. Careful choice of detail leaves no doubt of who a character is and where she came from.

3. Try to look at things in a new way.
This is the most revolutionary lesson, and the one most likely to earn me some hate mail. Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer in 1937, not in part because of its treatment of the post-Civil War South. Although contemporary with Southern Renaissance writers and Southern Gothic writers like the far-more canonized William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Mitchell stands apart from those genre writers because, instead of focusing on the defeat and corruption of the South, she examines the perceived glorious past and the perpetuation of the Confederate identity.

Gone with the Wind has long been criticized for its racist treatment of the slaves and former slaves and of African-American identity generally. “Good negroes” stay with their masters after being freed, and they take pride in their service.The bad, “free issue” former slaves are encouraged by the Yankees into violence or indolence. This characterization is not okay, but it’s interesting because it makes us question if these attitudes ever existed. Were “good slaves” in the 1860s glorified by a long life of service? Is this attitude a relic of pre-civil rights era America, when Mitchell was writing?

Furthermore, the Yankees are portrayed as evil conquerors, while the Southerners are noble and unfairly downtrodden. This is not history as most of us learn it. But it’s an intellectual exercise, and one good for the moral constitution, that makes us consider a reviled point of view. “History is written by the victors,” after all. If the South had (infeasibly) won, what attitude would now prevail?

I think good fiction should make us consider an issue from another point of view. It should tell a story, but, more than that, it should turn that story inside out and make us think hard about the world it portrays and the world around us. This is what I’m trying to do with my own writing, although I make no claims to the importance of racial rights and American history’s most turbulent times. Still, it’s a way of effecting change through words.

Happy reading and writing, all.