Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Latching on to characters

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I wrote about inspiration for a new novel. I’m thrilled to report that it’s been a great week in novel land. I’ve had so much fun auditioning bits and pieces of my use-one-day collection to see if they might work in this book.

The only downer was day I found out that the marvelous 1890s brick school building where I attended first grade has been torn down and the land it was on turned into a mall, but such are the perils of research. At least I was able to add to my do-some-day list writing a story set in that building as I remembered it.

This is that heady period, before the first word of Chapter 1 is written, when anything goes and everything works. My plot is inspired, my mystery is devilishly clever, and my characters paragons of just about everything. We all know, of course, that first paragraph in Chapter 1 will begin to rub off the shine, but I’ll just hang on to my illusions for a few more weeks, okay?

I’ve also been re-reading my basic tips binder to remind myself of things I should have already learned. Some things I have learned, for other things the refresher is a good idea. Here are some tips I came across about how to develop characters whom the reader will want to latch onto.

Introduce the character in media res; that is, smack dab in the middle of something with a high physical and/or emotional content.

Give each character a unique name. Mix up names so that there is a variety of sound mixes, number of syllables, and ethnic origins.

Give each character a unique ways of relating to the physical world. This includes their physical description, clothes, food, living spaces, possessions, automobile, electronic gadgets (or lack thereof) and their relationship to each of these.

Limit the number of names and titles referring to one character. For example, a character named William Smith, should not be referred to as William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Willy-Boy, Mr. Smith, the Boss, and Old Red-Face by different characters.

If two or more characters share the same descriptive title—several doctors, or priests, or detectives—give each character a unique name and character sketch so that Father D’Arcy won’t be confused with Father Rafael or Father Whitcombe.

Make it clear immediately how characters with the same last name are related, or if using name confusion as a plot device, give each character an attitude toward being frequently mistaken for the other person.

At the beginning of a book, the reader files every new character with due diligence until she can figure out how important a particular character is to the story. Avoid minor characters in the first three chapters, other than background characters who make the story flow. The doorman at the hotel or the dry cleaner who ruined the protagonist’s best dress, can set events in motion, but they should be mentioned in passing without names or details. The more details the reader is given—that the dry cleaner is named Moe, he’s fifty-five years old, he lives over the shop, and he speaks with a New York accent—the more the reader expects Moe to play a major part in the story. A summary like, “On Tuesday, the dry cleaner ruined my best dress” will cover what’s needed to move along.

A character doesn’t usually gel with a reader until they have appeared least three times, in three different roles or relationships. It’s important to gel all of your major characters with the reader as soon as possible. There is no hard rule about this, but as a general guideline, all of the major characters should be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind by the end of chapter three. The only exception is your detective(s); it’s hard to have him or her show up before the first body is discovered. But then, there are endless discussions about needing a body by the end of chapter three as well.

If you must hold a major character in reserve until later in the book, at least making a general reference to him or her. Statements like, “My sister is arriving tomorrow. You’re going to love her. She has such a sense of humor,” or “What really pisses me off is a guy in a thousand-dollar suit, with that look-at-me attitude” sets up reader expectations. They’ll be expecting the sister to arrive or for the protagonist to meet a guy in a thousand-dollar suit.

Quotes for the week (It’s a two for one week)

Give your reader time to sink into one person’s mind and experience what’s going on there, before you yank them out and pull them into another mind.
~Beth Anderson, mystery and romance writer

Choose names very carefully. Pay attention to the meaning and the sound, and to connotations that people will give a name.
~Elizabeth George, mystery writer


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Another brilliant dissection of the process, Sharon. On the other hand, I can't build a character up from the ground by following the rules. I've tried, and the result is always flat, flat, flat. I have to start with voice. Once the character's alive and revealing his or her personality, I can check back and make sure I haven't broken any of these rules--or if I'm going to break 'em for sufficient reason.

Sandra Parshall said...

I usually have to put a character on the page before I can discover who and what he is. That's first draft work. And I hate it! If a character refuses to gel, out he/she goes. By the time I've finished the first draft, I know the characters and can set about making their behavior consistent throughout the story.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I do a lot of fill in the blank about characters right up to the end of the first draft. Usually after that I'm too busy writing the story to go back and update the character profile, so by the end of the story the character on the page is often a different person from the character in the profile sheet.