Thursday, March 17, 2011

On building characters, your good/bad traits, and dirty little secrets

Julia King posted an interesting and engaging conversation on her blog the other day in which she listed the things she loves, and the things she hates (not necessarily in that order). And it got me to thinking...yesterday was the birthday of my evil villain, Lucian Dmitri. On Tuesday, I was screwed up on which day of the week it was (happens OFTEN) and I Tweeted his birthday prematurely, but I'm sure that sort of thing would suit Lucian just fine. He'd love the attention, and he'd laugh at my stupidity for mentioning his birthday a day early. Then he'd look at me with those sinister eyes, offer to buy me dinner, and likely kill me before the night was over. But the way I'd die? It would probably be very, very satisfying. For him, not me.

In saying all that about Lucian--a person who doesn't exist--I realized how silly this string of conversation truly is. He's fictional. He ain't real. He's not going to buy me dinner or laugh at me, although I swear to God, my characters sometimes feel like they will lead me to my death, the rope tight around my chafed neck, with the constant worrying about personality traits, who they've tortured most recently, who's in their sights for future mayhem, the works. What color is their hair/eyes? Do they like broccoli? (That's the best way for me to construct a character different from me. I hate broccoli and will only eat it if force-fed. If you force-feed me broccoli, I will return your favor by promptly barfing it all over you. So, if you're bringing me that green tree-looking demon vegetable with the intent of rectifying my wicked, wicked ways, don't wear your Sunday best. 'Cuz I'll barf on you and ruin that pretty new overpriced shirt you've been saving for Sunday.) How do we go about building multifaceted, fascinating people without being cliche and overwrought?

Multiple reasons can be cited as to why my latest project was YA. Sure, there is the fact that my daughter is in that age group and I was completely floored by the success of a handful of YA writers (come on--we all love money, and the flood of YA in the market is ample evidence to support that I am not the only writer whose eyes were dazzled with dollar signs). There is the fact that my dear young friend Alysha finished her zombie novel two weeks before her fifteenth birthday, and I was inspired (terrified) by the approaching culmination of my third decade on the planet. But--most importantly--I wanted to write someone who was not me. I've started many projects with a main character, a woman, in her thirties, saddled with domestic responsibilities, thrown into impossible situations from which she is expected to emerge victorious. She's me. She's always me, or some incarnation of who I think is me. It's the write-what-you-know adage, and we all struggle with it at some point in our writing.

Thing is, I'm boring. I don't want to write about me because I live with me day in and day out. (So do four other people, and there should be a special holiday in their honor, sort of like Veteran's Day or All Saints Day.) So instead, I wrote about Gemma. She's 17, far from my current age. She plays the violin. She lives with a circus (though some could say that isn't far from my life). She is brave and smart and quiet and powerful. She is who I wished I were when I was 17.

And this brings up an interesting point of discussion: how do you build characters? Do you see traits in the people around you and then mesh them into a ball of a human, sort of like squishing tiny rocks and sequins into a wad of Play-Doh? Writing classes will drill that into your head--create believable characters--so even when we're writing about fairies and werewolves and shapeshifters (which I haven't done), we still incorporate elements of the people in our environment. Writers are notorious for being personality vampires, i.e., we watch people and steal their tics, their idiosyncracies, their secrets. No one wants to read about a boring housewife whose day is comprised of laundry, carpool, and cooking. But if we make her a housewife who practices witchcraft in the kitchen while her kiddies are at preschool, or a housewife with an anger management problem who, with her gas-guzzling, menacing, muffler-free Hummer, chases down squirrels and little old ladies in crosswalks, or a housewife who has a raging case of eczema that makes her scratch until she bleeds and a part-time job at a bank from which she is embezzling funds to support her drug/pole dancing/shoe habit, now we're talking. We've just taken her from flat and mundane to spicy and extraordinary.

You've heard it before: the best characters are ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. They are the heroes among us. They are Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen and Hamlet. (That is why Bella Swan fell flat. She's boring, and not at all heroic. Sorry. Truth hurts. Oh, stop telling me to be nice. You know you agree. All that whiny and simpering and lack of action makes my molars ache. I want to scream, "Grow a set, woman!" You can nod your head now. Her "mother" will never read my blog. And even if she did, she's laughing last, soaking in a tub of $1,000,000 bills. Wait--do they even make those? I get excited when I find a fiver in the bottom of the washing machine...)

Think about your bad traits or habits. To make you feel better, here are a few of mine:

~I cuss a lot.
~I hate exercise and thus, I avoid it like the plague.
~I judge too quickly, myself and others.
~I often assume the worst and thus have low self-esteem.
~I chew on my lips obsessively.
~I have a short fuse and a big mouth.

Think about your better attributes, now that you've torn yourself apart. Mine? Wow. This is tough.

~I am good with commas and most parts of grammar.
~I am painfully loyal.
~I'm really good at making macaroni & cheese from a box.
~I know how to clean the hell out of a house.
~I sometimes say funny things, often for my own amusement.
~I defend my friends and loved ones with vehemence.

After compiling a list of your own faults/strengths, think about what an interesting character you could build by mushing these things up into the form of a person. Try not to be obvious--it's easy to pull out the Psychiatric Physicians' Desk Reference and embed OCD or depression into a character. What if she has Tourette's, though, and she acts out at a PTA or business meeting or at the council of elders? Sure, Tourette's isn't funny, but it sort of is. It can also be wildly disruptive and destructive. My daughter has a growth condition. She's going to be 4'8" forever. We laugh about it because what else can we do? Cry because she's short? Because she has to use a stool to put dishes away or because she will have to have her pants tailored forever? My daughter is an interesting character because she has been handed the short straw (pun intended) and she's learning to weave it into gold. That alone makes her extraordinary.

One caveat: Not everyone is interested in building a character who's funny, especially given the context of a specific project. I realize that. Even so, in a work of gritty or taut or heartrending fiction, it's still important to give your characters dimension. My only complaint with the protagonist in The Hunger Games was that she felt too cold. Then again, that was part of her personality, and as such, it totally works. Not every heroine is going to be touchy-feely, and Katniss is reflective enough throughout the story to let the reader know that she processes things very deeply. That's why the character works so well against the impossible life-and-death backdrop of the Hunger Games.

What about the weird people you've known in your life? Inspiration can come from any one of these folks. And it can come from people you don't even know are weird, people who have dirty little secrets. EVERYONE has a secret. Over the last few years, I have been floored by the discovery that the fine people in my suburban neighborhood have an assload of unmentionables that never see the light of day, at least not until something happens and the nuclear family springs a radioactive leak. You think everyone around you is normal...but too much normal hints at an unspoken abnormal lurking in closets and between mattresses and on computers in darkened dens at 2 in the morning. It's freaky, and reassuring, all at the same time. What are your character's secrets? Are they big enough to bring him/her down if discovered?

Let your guard down. Create a character who resembles you in a number of ways, and then destroy him/her and rebuild that person into someone who will face the extraordinary with panache. Give them weird tics and habits and pet peeves. I should've done more of that with Gemma. Sure, she's interesting enough, but I'm writing a character right now for another WIP who's dealing with a husband in the midstages of sexual reassignment. Jules is feisty and driven, but she's also sad and scared. She's going to miss her husband when he goes from "Aaron" to "Eryn." How will she deal? How will she explain it to their young son? Will she start drinking again? Will she start chewing on plastic straws because smoking is passe and unhealthy? What hilarity will ensue from shoe-shopping with the family, when Mommy and Daddy are fighting over the last pair of black patent Manolo Blahniks with the peacock-feather toe?

Go. Build someone weird. Then share him/her/it with me and the rest of the world.

When you're done with that, go to the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog and check out my interview with the crazy-talented Hannah Moskowitz. Talk about extraordinary...


  1. I love characters. A book have a hole-ridden plot but if the characters are great I'll still gobble it up. My problem? I'll build characters I adore with quirks and a list of favorites and then... what do I do with them? Family and friends are often wary of me - too many of them have seen a few of their quirks or mannerisms appear in my writings. Ooops.

  2. inspired. gotta go fix something i just thought of... k bye.