Thursday, March 18, 2010

Characterization: Reader's Want to Care

In junior high school we learned how to write descriptive paragraphs. I still have a few of mine. One is about a storm rolling across the valley where I grew up. Black and purple clouds, lightning forking through the darkness, the wind growing strong and cold, the mountains a dark shadow that's swallowed up by gray sheets of rain.

You know what I mean. You've all written something like it. I hope you kept it, to remind yourself how far you've come.

At any rate, when we learned to write descriptive paragraphs, we learned to over-write. You really don't need quite so much description.

I've already written about imaginative engagement, and how you can make the most of drawing your reader into your story through spare descriptions, particularly in how you can use such a strategy to endear your readers to your characters.

But how, besides sparse description, can you help readers actually want to read about your characters?

Whatever you do, don't take your example from Gregory Maguire's Wicked The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

How do I mean?

I read Wicked. Cover to agonizing cover. I kept hoping (beyond hope, it turned out) for something to happen that would make me care about any of the characters. I cared about Elfeba at the beginning of the book, but that caring soon wore off as she grew and acted and did things that made me not only dislike her, but hate her. And Maguire surrounded her with characters that were no more likeable than she. By the end of the book I was grateful that Dorothy would someday come along and melt her, and sickened that Dorothy would be influenced by Glinda.

Awful book. I wish I had tossed it in the library return bin long before I actually finished it, but I just couldn't let go of the idea that the book was SO popular, and that worthwhile books have characters readers love to love. I just couldn't believe that Maguire would finish the book without giving me that. But he didn't. I got to the last page, still hoping.

Never happened. Waste of time. If I could give it negative stars in a review, I would. I grieve over the time I lost reading it, time that I could have been doing a thousand things more valuable and enjoyable--like having a colonoscopy.

My point is, reader's don't just want to feel strong emotions about characters. Obviously Maguire's book elicited such strong emotions in me I had to go on about it for three paragraphs! But strong emotion wasn't enough.

I REALLY wanted to care.

So how does a writer create a charcater that his reader's can care about?

"Really scary books succeed because we come to know and care about the characters. I like to say, "It's the PEOPLE, stupid"--NOT the monsters." ~Stephen King

Mr. King's advice applies to much more than just good horror. But he has a point about horror. Horror works best when we know and care enough about the people that we fear for them more deeply than if they were strangers--or worse, despicable--to us.

So how does one create characters readers care enough about to read about? Try these:

1. "Hey! I know this guy!"

Readers care about characters they can relate to. Does that mean you're only going to reach blind Tibetan women if your main character is a blind Tibetan woman? Of course not. But as a blind Tibetan woman she will have experienced things that are universal to all human beings--things like pain, sorrow, joy, hunger, fear.

Readers relate to characters for one (or more) of three reasons--things happen to the characters that were similar to things that have happened to the reader; the character reacts emotionally to a problem the way a reader would; the character acts in a way that makes sense to the reader.

The reader thinks, 'Sure, I would have done the same thing.' Or they think, 'You know, I can relate to her sorrow, because I've felt that kind of sorrow before.' Or they think, 'You know, I've never been that scared in my life, and I'm sure glad I haven't! That poor girl!'

In these ways, the reader finds himself in your characters. And since we're all egotists at heart, readers will read about themselves from here to eternity.

The trouble with writing despicable characters is, despicable people don't tend to be voracious fiction readers--hence the overwhelming preponderance of sales of books with good guys that win in the end.

2. No one likes a cry baby.

Don't be afraid to give your characters emotion. Let them react, naturally and in an expected way. Be careful they never OVERreact, however.

A hundred some odd years ago, the Victorians were fond of their female main characters fainting at the slightest distress because of the 'delicate female condition.' It was SO dramatic. it was SO endearing. But was it real? Who knows. I didn't live in Victorian times. Maybe chicks were fainting all over the place. Somehow I doubt it. It was dramatic--melodramatic, at least. But it wasn't realistic. It made fun reading, but didn't change the world or tax the readers' imaginations.

What the readers COULD relate to was that the characters were going through some seriously trying circumstances. Maybe the readers WISHED they could just faint dead away so they wouldn't have to deal with their own trials, at least for a short time. I don't know. I don't actually get it. I thought The Count of Monte Cristo could have been staged with a Snidely Whiplash villain and the count as the big-chinned Canadian Mounty hero it was so over the top melodramatic. Poor Count, bursting into tears at the drop of a velvet glove!!

These days we can't take our example from the Victorian popular fiction writers. Our readers are considerably more savvy than their Victorian counterparts. I believe it was Orson Scott Card who said something to the effect that if you make your character cry, you dispel the tension for the reader; but if your character doesn't cry when he has good reason to, then the reader will cry for him.

For a great book that characterizes subtly, but powerfully, I recommend Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell, or The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss.

3. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...

My teenage daughter knows a boy at school that she hates. Why? Because he's PERFECT!!! Ugh! He's smart, he's a good speaker, he's outgoing, he's good looking, he's just plain perfect--and she hates him.

You know this person. You've experienced this kind of person before. You probably hate him, too. They make us look bad. They're too good to be true.

True for fictional characters, too.

A character that's too GOOD (or, on the converse, too BAD) will be hated by your reader.

Hating isn't always a bad thing, right? Don't we want to hate our villains?

I'm talking about a different kind of hate here. I'm talking about the 'I don't want to read about this character' kind of hate. The kind of hate that comes from characters that are too perfectly good or too perfectly bad.

This is particularly true for our antagonist and our protagonist. For example, if the books were called Hermione Granger and the Socerer's Stone J.K. Rowling would have been laughed right out of the publisher's office. Hermione is too perfect. She's a know-it-all. But poor flawed Harry makes a perfect hero, just like poor bad-tempered Hercules does, and poor trusting King Arthur.

Rule of thumb, you want your hero to have some flaws--like Harry Potter's ignorance and blatant refusal to do what's good for himself--and you want your villain to be a likable guy--aside from the fact that he's trying to off your hero. OK, maybe not LIKABLE, but he should at least have some characteristics we can relate to. I mean, we even feel sorry for Tom Riddle, don't we? We understand, at some level, why he turned to evil, because we can see ourselves at least entertaining that sort of thing had we been raised in similar circumstances, right? Of course right.

4. The real bad guy--the author

Don't be afraid to hurt your main character. Punch him, slap him, cut him, put him in the hospital, kill his best friend, take away his girlfriend, run over his dog, kidnap his children, burn down his house, shoot his horse out from under him. All these things play on our own fears for our own safety, and they make us LOVE the character who not only goes through it, but struggles against it and survives!

When Emmet gets shot in Silverado--GASP!!
When Luke loses his hand in Star Wars--Oh, no!
When the Wicked Witch of the West slaps Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz--Poor Dorothy!

You get it? I thought you would. Have fun with that.

I found a website called Men With Pens. They had a couple of good articles on characterization:

What Makes Readers Care About Your Characters?

Characters Rule the Story

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