Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Building Better Characters

During the recent Missouri Writer's Guild (MWG) Conference, I attended the Sunday morning "master class" on "Building Believing Characters" presented by Elaine Viets. I liked her when she was in St. Louis and enjoyed what she had to say during the keynote address I also came to find out that she grew up not too far away from where I grew up, so her hometown stories really resonated with me. I found her very personable and she definitely brightened up the conference.

The reason I signed up for this class is (1) I wanted to hear what she had to say and to me, she was definitely the biggest name at the conference, and (2) I enjoy character-driven fiction and wanted to hear what she had to say about developing characters. In particular, I wanted to learn how to go beyond the flat characters that populate many of today's stories and develop characters that are, as the name of the session implies, believable and, more importantly to me, have depth.

Here are some of the tips she gave:

- Don't reveal too much about your character all at it slowly. This simulates how we learn about others. We don't find out everything about them up front, it takes time, and readers like to know there is more to learn.

- Don't have characters reveal the information themselves, do it through the action of the character or actions of others around the character.

- Character sketches are important. Take the time to develop a background for your characters. As an aside, a college prof of mine has us "interview" our main characters, which I found to be a really effective tool to learn more about my character.

- Don't just describe the character, but discuss how the character feels about how they look. Pretty girls feel differently - some are happy, some don't think they are pretty enough. How a character reacts or feels about their physical characteristics reveals a lot about that character and adds depth and believability.

- Avoid generic terms like "middle aged" or "pretty" since those terms mean different things to different people. However, using them to describe how someone perceives the character, include the character them self, might be beneficial. For example, maybe a lot of people might think a girl is pretty, but she doesn't - or vice-versa.

- Introduce people in their natural habitat.

- How a character treats pets can tell a lot about that character.

- Characters should talk differently. As an aside, one of the writers in our group is very technical and his protagonist talks with precision using words not found in the ordinary person's vocabulary. Well, when he wrote his wife's dialogue, she spoke the exact same way! We, of course, corrected him.

- Shoes, hairstyle, clothes, are all important clues to a character's personality.

- Character may be more important than plot.

- Cultural setting of the character is important. Where did they grow up? What were the character's parents like? I have a book on character types that has been invaluable to me.

- Little things are important - what does the character eat? What does she like? Not like? How does she vote? Does she go to church? If so, what kind and for how long? A character that attends the same church her parents did is different than one who attends a different kind of church.

I asked about stereotypes. I have a character who is a professor that wears a tweed jacket and another writer-friend was blasted by a reviewer because she used a "white haired grizzled veteran" as a Major in one of her stories. Elaine said that stereotypes were okay since they allowed the reader to identify with the character. However, the character cannot be one-dimensional and must have characteristics that make him or her unique.

Some examples of how I am going to apply this knowledge to my own work:

- My protagonist is gay. I was going to reveal it early, but why hurry? Also, I'm not going to have him reveal it himself, but through dialogue, by having a colleague ask about a past relationship.

- I am going to keep the tweed-jacket wearing stereotype, but add some quirks - maybe a few pet-peeves, food likes and dislikes, and a unique religious view.

Overall, I thought it was a great presentation and well worth the time and money.