Sunday, April 21, 2013

Journeyman Mistakes: Building Character

Freed from other distractions - for now - I started writing my long-postponed novel Cintan last night.

I decided to scrap almost everything and start fresh. After several false starts since two years ago, I believe this is a good path to be on.

I'm now taking a break after completing 3,000 words tonight. Target is 10,000 words by morning, which is possible.

So I want to talk about writing characters. First, disclaimers:

I do not believe writing can be taught by anyone other than yourself. You write, or you don't write. That is all.

Content can be anything. Style, can be understood when you read. You can get into the writer's head and see things from his/her perspective. This is style. This is all there is to it. There are techniques to strengthen style, for example, HP Lovecraft would create anticipation by writing, "Oh, these horrors are indescribable!" and then he would describe them.

Characters, though, can be drawn from real life. The best person, is yourself as a template. People are multi-faceted beings. It is impossible to capture the essence of a person in 800 words, or eight million. So you can take any part of yourself and design a character based on the traits you see or understand.

Most readers can only process one or two facets of a character at any one time. The third dimension, they add inside their heads based on ambiguity we provide.

For example, a one-dimensional character is: Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and now has the proportionate strength and agility of the arachnid.

A two-dimensional character is: Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and now has the proportionate strength and agility of the arachnid. This causes chaos in his life as he tries valiantly to lead a normal existence.

The third dimension - the extra depth - is added when readers assume or colour Peter's internal strife due to the conflict of being lucky enough to have superpowers and unlucky enough to be burdened with responsibility. It is this 'simulated experience' in readers' minds - peppered by their own world views and how they relate to the world - that creates this depth. As usual, writers merely provide guidance and nudges to get people to perhaps think this way.

As raw material, your own self is great. Carl Jung said of the personality archetypes. You can assign these archetypes to your characters and build layered back-stories that only you know, for your own reference. If you reveal everyone's roles and their psyche as well as how their minds work, the mystery is gone and your characters become boring.

There is no need to explain everything and you can trust your audience to fill in the blanks of each character with their own unique perspective.

If you remember series such as Survivor and Lost, those are great character studies. The best characters are when readers use them as a means to define themselves.

"Jack is solid, reliable, dependable and responsible!"

"Sawyer's the best cause he's a rebel! And he speaks the truth. No bullshit."

"Hurley is nice and gentle."

"Poor Desmond is the unluckiest and most unique person on the island! He has suffered so much. He deserves a great happy ending."

"Sayyid is a Mohammadean!"

"Ben is the most creepy, manipulative psychological bad-ass since Hannibal Lector"

"I'm on Team Edward because he is the Chosen One! And he has done everything right and followed all rules - even establishing his own!"

"I'm on Team Jacob because he's a rebel and he is the underdog and he has prevailed every time. His is the love that should not have been, but defied blablablabla"

If you look at Lost, they're basically just one or two people there, but split into numerous characters. This theory I had in my head was supported by the final season which showed a battle between two forces on the island. It was carried out by conflicting sides within each character.

Never underestimate the power of reader's choice as they will even put things in places where there were none. Of course, the role of the writer is to prepare or establish these spaces and the readers will fill them. However, sometimes the attraction of the story itself compels readers to create depth where there were none.

Edward and Jacob from Twilight, for example, are two generic stock characters, but the story resonated with a huge fan-base and with those kind of numbers, it was enough to create extra dimensions for the characters inside the minds of Twi-hards.