Three Dirty Birds are still talking about Chuck Wendig’s Kick-Ass Writer. (There’s a lot of tips in this book!) Today, we’re learning all about character.
Kate: I really with Chuck on this one. If you don’t have a good character or characters, the rest of the story falls flat. Which is, I think, how some stories I’ve read recently have gotten published. The storytelling itself wasn’t terrific, but the characters were crack. And a crack-y character will earn you a lot of slack in other parts of the novel.
Zoe: I remember reading this one on his blog a while back, and loving it. I’d read books on characters before, but this really distills it into easy-to-understand language and concepts.
Ana: I liked his tip 5. Where he says: “It’s critical to know what a character wants from the start. She may not know what she wants, but the audience must have that information.” It’s a good distinction. One I hadn’t considered before.
Kate; I’m trying to figure out how to get that across in my NaNo novel, because it’s for darn sure that Kev doesn’t have a clue what he really wants. Neither does Mo, really, though he clues in a lot sooner.
Ana: Subtle hints in the narration or through a character’s behavior? Like a character who thinks he doesn’t want sex but keeps staring at guys?
Kate: And that’s probably how it’s going to come out. I think Kev’s stuff will hit the narrative later than Mo’s, just because he’s kind of got himself locked down in academic mode.
Zoe: I think that even gives you an opportunity to slip something subtle in—at the end of an exhausting study session, it’s three in the morning and he’s rubbing his eyes…and there’s a kind of emptiness there in the room with him.
Kate: Hah! Yes! Especially since he’s an RA, so he gets an apartment to himself.
Ana: I’ve used that in my current novella…. just a room being weirdly empty.
Zoe: I read a blog post just last night that was talking about leaving things out, and negative things in narration. It was really good. I’ll need to find it again. The example was during a church service for a funeral, and by what the author chose to mention the reader got the idea—without being told—that none of the people attending were actually close to the departed.
Kate: I think I might have read that one… It was good. I like subtle stuff like that. Best part about later drafts is that you have so much solidified, that you can go into the text and add and delete to make a lot of your info dumping subliminal.
Zoe: I actually thought of you when I read it. It’s here: http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/2009/09/words-not-spoken-steps-not-taken.html (“The Words Not Spoken, the Steps Not Taken” on edittorrent.)
Ana: *bookmarks to check later* I actually liked tip 6 too. It talks about likeability of characters, which is something that I often find is overrated in internet discussions. A character doesn’t have to be all that likable if he’s interesting enough that I want to read about him. I didn’t like the characters of Gone Girl, for example. I kind of liked to hate them, by the end.
Kate: I have to read that. Joe Abercrombie did that in his books, with Inquisitor Glokta. A broken, bitter man, resentful, cruel, but fascinating. I think part of the fascination was that you could see, in bits and pieces, where he’d come from, how far he’d fallen, and every once in a while you’d get a glimpse of who he used to be, and how the world had failed him. You didn’t like him any better by the end of the trilogy, but you kind of felt a sort of empathy for him.
Ana: I’m now thinking it might be a bit harder to have not-likable characters in romance, where the reader wants to fall in love with at least one character–by proxy.
Zoe: I think the recent author-behaving-badly articles by Katherine Hale and Morgan Howard prove that trainwrecks are as compelling to readers as stories with people we care for. But I agree…it can be a lot harder to pull off in romance, because the likeability of the characters to each other is key.
Kate: Yes. And if one is hateful, it kind of follows that the only kind of person who would fall in love with them is hateful, or unpleasant, in their own way.
Zoe: I did once have a story idea (undeveloped) involving a romance between a serial killer and a guy who had that disorder where you think someone (who’s never even freaking met you) is love with you. They meet because they’re both stalking the same person. But I don’t think, in the end, even if they (somehow!) live happily ever after, it would satisfy romance readers.
Ana: It sounds fun though.
Kate: You should write that Zoe. Really. It would be a fun challenge.
Zoe: You never know. It has a long waitlist ahead of it though.
I think #9 is a common trap for newer writers: “Act Upon the World Rather Than Have the World Act Upon Him.” I think, for whatever reason, it’s intimidating to have characters act of their own volition when you’re first starting out—to have them make stupid decisions and act upon them and suffer the consequences. It’s easier to have bad things happen to them and have them just react.
Kate: The 7 Point Plot Structure actually kind of tells you to do this–have things change, and have the character deal with it. Though I think it means that your character has to be active in seeking a resolution to these changes, even if he isn’t being pro-active. Then, later in the book, he becomes pro-active as part of his growth and as his knowledge increases.
Zoe: I think when the things are external and out of his hands, it comes down to giving your character hard choices to make. The rock and the hard place.
Ana: I think the way the character reacts to the changes in his life should set other things into motion. I also recall hearing that the very first thing in a story that sets the ball rolling can be external or even coincidental but the rest shouldn’t be.
Kate: I think it has to. There’s not many choices in life that don’t set off some kind of consequence down the road. But he should actively make a choice to deal with things that happen and then spend the rest of the book dealing with the consequences of his choice, even if the connection isn’t always obvious.
Zoe: Yes, the passive character happens when he doesn’t make any choices; the character is just buffeted along by the things that happen to him. Bad thing 1 happens, character laments, bad thing 2 happens, character laments some more. It’s supposed to come across as tragic, but tragedy isn’t just “bad things happening.” It’s bad things happening, and no matter what the character tries to do to get out from under them, things just get worse.
Kate: I keep thinking about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The main character is so–I’m not sure if passive is the word for it, but the way the book is written, it feels like he’s being buffeted from event to event and is just going whichever way the wind blows. But, if you look at it, everything happens because of some choice he made.
Zoe: Yes—this is a man who lay down in front of a bulldozer in the opening chapter. Yet he does feel buffeted. I think it’s because he believes himself to be the sort of man who doesn’t make a fuss, doesn’t make decisions, etc., that he comes across that way while actually being active in his story.
Kate: It’s an interesting technique, and it’s done so smoothly you don’t even notice it. But it adds to the funny factor of the book. Everyone’s making choices, but no one seems to be making them.
Ana: Life sometimes feels that way to me.
Zoe: I think the hobbits come across like that as well. Ana’s a hobbit.
Ana: I’ll have you know my feet aren’t hairy.
Kate: Which reminds me, is it time for second breakfast yet?
Zoe: I still need first. 🙁
Kate: You wouldn’t be able to hear me over my stomach growling if I hadn’t had a piece of toast when I first got up.
Ana: I forget breakfast sometimes. We’re such different characters!
Kate: Lol. I like Tip #8 and Tip #10. The remarkability factor and having characters make bad decisions. I think every character has to have something special going for them, but it doesn’t mean they’re always going to be right. (actually, I like characters who are constantly deceiving themselves. Unreliable narrators for the win!)
Ana: Characters having something special going for them reminds me that I marked tip 15 “Boom Goes the Dynamite”, where Chuck tells us our MCs need a ‘kick-ass moment.’ It’s not something I thought about before.
Zoe: The remarkability tip made me think of Stephen King, who’s had a number of main characters who are just regular people. Which is to say that by “remarkable,” Chuck doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be larger than life. King’s characters become remarkable for 1) the situations they find themselves in and 2) how they deal with them. (Which we could say is how they get to their “kick-ass moment.” :D)
Kate: He has some good cautions, too, about making your character too dull or too perfect. You don’t want your character to be boring, and you don’t want him to win everything, all the time. And this applies to the side characters too, because in their minds, they’re the star, and it’s only because of all the things they did that the main character got the glory and the princess.
Ana: I liked number 20, everyone’s a little screwed up inside. I often find myself giving my characters problems before I give them anything else. I guess I just like writing about screwed up people.
Kate: I forget where I heard it, but someone said once, “What your character can’t do is more interesting than what he can.” I always thought that was a cool way to put it. And it’s true.
Zoe: I like that.
Kate: I DNF’d a book a while ago that should have been crack to me–gunporn, monsters, secret agency. But the main character was so perfect…bleh. And it’s a very popular series, which baffles me.
Ana: Which is why, in the end, what really makes you popular remains such a mystery.
Kate: Yep. All the more reason to write what you want to read, because there is no formula.
I liked the last two tips about taking your character out on a test drive and getting to know them inside and out. Not only does it flesh out more of your background, your setting and your character, but you can come back to those ‘outtakes’ later on when you start setting up blog tours to promote the work. What’s more fun than deleted scenes, or small one-off stories that don’t appear in the novel? So you get two birds with one stone when you do this.
Zoe: I’m not sure we should be talking about stoning birds here.
Kate: How about cookies then? Or…FUDGE!
Zoe: Yes, absolutely. Cookie, fudge, and Philly cheesesteak birds. Especially this bird. HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST FOODSHOT!
Ana: My mommy taught me not to throw food. *eats it instead*
Kate: There goes my ammo. 🙁
Zoe: There goes my breakfast.