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Jim Butchers Writing Tips
new file: chapter6.txt
over 5 years ago
> These files will be included in your book:
So your story is all about conflict, right? And you can't have conflict without, well, people. Maybe your people look like sentient renaissance mice, or maybe they look like talking cats, but there are going to be beings running around your story with a bunch of conflicting desires. Those are your characters.
Sticking with the purely craft-oriented standpoint, we'll start with a basic question: what makes a good character?
FIRST AND FOREMOST, FICTION WRITERS, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE INTERESTING.
I mean, come on. Who is going to want to read about boring people? I can do that in the newspaper, or in any history class. Increasingly, as our society moves into the MTV-Information-broadband-instant-gratification age, reader tolerance for the dull and the plain is going to go down.
Bottom line: without interesting characters, your book is already dead. You can write something that flies in the face of this if you like, and people the story town of Plainsville with John Smiths, and who knows, maybe you'll create an immortal piece of literary art. But for poor slobs like me whose sons are suddenly wearing larger shoes than them, and who are looking with mild panic at the costs of a college degree, there are a couple of basic principles to think about which could really help you in all kinds of ways.
Which leads us to the next logical question: What is (or what makes) an interesting character?
While no one thing can really stake a sole claim, several things consistently make a team contribution:
* Exotic position.
We'll look at them one at a time.
This can be almost any kind of exaggerated feature, be it physical, mental or emotional. Virtually every character in popular fiction is an exaggerated figure of one kind or another. Mister Monk is not merely fussy and unstable, he is fussy and unstable to an insane degree. Jack O'Neill is not merely wiseass and cavalier, but suicidally so. Sydney Bristow is not merely a spy, she's a CIA SuperSpyGrrl who can look like anyone and outshoot, outfight and generally outdo every other spy in the business. Paul Bunyan is not just tall, he's sixty-three axe-handles high. Pamela Anderson is . . . say no more.
The purposes of exaggerating characters are twofold:
FIRST, it's inherently interesting. Reading a sentence about Joe Average walking down the street is not nearly as interesting as reading a sentence about Joe Two-Meters walking down the street and banging his head on swinging shop signs as he goes.
SECOND, it's a device to create an acute mental awareness of your character for the reader. Remember that the goal of this kind of story-craft is to create that virtual world inside your reader's head. The reader is glad to help you along with that. I mean, readers will provide a lot of the background sets and extras and so on if you give them a chance--but one way to make it easier for them to get into the story is to create a clear impression of a character on them, so that they always have a clear image in their head of who that character is. Exaggeration helps with that--it gives the reader something unusual and memorable to associate with any given character.
(More tips and techniques on how to do even more with this will follow under Verisimilitude.)
__2. EXOTIC POSITION__
While this is in actuality just another facet of exaggeration, there are enough differences to make it worth its own heading. Locating your character in an unusual location or situation is another way to help create immediate interest. A sentence about a thirty-five year old man sitting in an office is fairly simple and very boring. But it becomes something else entirely when it's the OVAL office and the youngest president in the history of the nation has just been advised that a nuclear terrorist is loose in DC. A sentence about a young woman sitting in a chair is far more blah than a sentence about the first female shuttle commander maneuvering in her EVA frame in high orbit.
(Naturally there's the inversion of this, too, where you take a very unusual character and put him in an utterly mundane position, like Mister Incredible working in Insurance Cubicle Purgatory.)
Whether it is a social, geographic, intellectual or moral position, choosing something unusual enough to be memorable and interesting will provide you with a significant advantage in grabbing reader interest.
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.
Lethal Weapon 2 starts off in the front seat of a stationwagon during a police chase, with Mel Gibson howling in excitement and pounding on the ceiling while Danny Glover fumbles for the siren, tries to talk on the radio, and tries to convince Mel that they don't really need to be doing this. It strongly establishes both characters as cops. It demonstrates Mel's love of wild action, Danny's cautious approach to his work, and the relationship dynamic between the two. (I liked it so much that I borrowed shamelessly from it to start off Grave Peril.)
Every Bond Pic that opens on the "opening mission" template does the same thing: it shows you Bond being a heroic spy and engaging in lots of danger and action.
Your character is a frustrated high school nerd? Then have him come on stage late for his school bus, which promptly drives away even though the driver obviously saw him coming. (IE, Spider-Man.) Your character is a titanic lumberjack? Then start him off towering over the north woods and felling fifty trees with each swing of his axe.
Make the introduction count. This is something you can't afford to screw up.
(Which is a university word that means "they act believeably." It's easier for me to type V-factor.)
V-factor is the second most important element in creating interesting characters. The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn't behave in a consistant and believeable manner. (*kaffkaff*JAR-JAR*kaffkaff*)
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.
The lion's share of this work gets done in the process of writing SEQUELS. (Not like Rocky II. It's a writing-craft term.)
(SEQUELS are an indispensable portion of your story and will have their own article later.)
But forethought and preparation will play a role in this process, too. Here's another cool craft-tool for you guys to use: TAGS and TRAITS
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.
For example; Thomas Raith's tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words.
This is a really subtle psychological device, and it is far more powerful than it first seems. It's invaluable for both you as the writer, and for the construction of the virtual story for the reader.
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.
Similarly, Bob the Skull's traits are the skull, its eyelights, his intelligence, his role as a lab assistant, his obsession with sex and his wiseass dialog. It works for the same reason.
Seriously. Before you introduce another character, write some tags and traits down. You'll be surprised how much easier it makes your job.
If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. 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.
Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.
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