Monday, March 31, 2014

What Makes a Character

Writing a good character is essential as I've stressed, well, a few times. The ins and outs of what makes a character seem real are complex for me, often times more than the plot I'm writing. The main character, especially since I tend to write in first person, is a challenge to make have her weaknesses and strengths instead of her just being perfect all the time. It's easy for me as the writer to just have my female MC react to the situation just how I think she should or understand things right when I want her to. The truth is, while fiction is definitely not real life, it can feel extremely contrived when your character is perfect at everything.

Let's start with looking at a personal favorite of mine. Nancy Drew. I like Nancy Drew, I grew up reading the books and talked about them a lot. I didn't care for the mysteries as much as I liked reading about her exotic adventures and her smarts in figuring things out. Looking back at it now, it seems odd to think she's supposed to be younger than me...

Anyway, I digress.

Nancy has it all, smarts, good looks, a fair amount of money, a loving family, a loving boyfriend, and the penchant for always being around when things that need solving (and are stumping the police) occur. Most detective stories that I've read center around characters who always seem to be in the right place at the right time to get caught up in a mystery. It could be totally normal but I tend to doubt it. The other thing that makes Nancy really different (and that annoyed my oldest sister to the point that she read the Hardy Boys instead) is that for every case she encounters, she is able to just 'pick up' whatever ability she needs to know be it tap dancing, (Clue of the Tapping Heels) bagpipes, (the Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes) acting, (The Clue of the Dancing Puppet), etc. She is definitely the girl that every girl would strive to be. Well her prowess always annoyed my sister, it was part of what I liked so well about the books. She was tough, the kind of girl who wasn't afraid of danger, and would think to write an SOS in pink lipstick on the window of the plane she was being kidnapped in.

I've said before that Abby started out being based on me. I like to think of myself as smart, brave, and ready to stand up for what's right, but in reality I think I'd be scared of things as much as the next person. It some ways I think Abby has less courage than me but in other ways, she has a lot more. *SPOILER ALERT* I don't think I would've gotten in front of Mrs. Willis to protect her from being shot. Not that I wouldn't want to save her but I'm not sure I have that sort of selflessness. Stepping in the  middle of a group of bullies to defend someone she didn't know also is possibly braver than I'd be. On the same hand, I hate seeing things that I view as unjust and sometimes don't think it all the way through before stepping in. *END SPOILER ALERT*

Connor on the other hand, is the type of hero that a hero should be. Smart, kind, charismatic, and just a bit good looking. I am of the impression that people with good personalities who take care of the people around them are attractive whether their features are classically good looking or not. I knew when I started writing him that I wanted him to laugh in the face of danger and have a way of getting the others around him to do the same.

He is the bane of my writing life.

Every sentence he speaks is a challenge with me, second and third guessing about whether he would say even the most mundane things like "Let's go." It sounds stupid but I was/am so afraid of making him sound out of character, like a different character entirely, or worst of all, like a girl.

Now that I'm writing the sequel, I want a more comfortable idea of who he is so I can write without the agonizing. I've done character interviews, something I recently picked up as a way to identify and better know my characters. Basically, it's a first person interview by me, the author, and first person from the character. Some of the characters I get really into and are really easy. Connor isn't one of them. Zack is easy for me to get into character for. He's intimidating, more likely to give insults than complements, and generally difficult to win a fight against. Does this mean that my personality more mirrors his than Conner's? Quite possibly. Thing is, I don't want to like Zack more than Connor but since it's easier for me to write Zack, I find myself with more portions writing about him than Connor. I could change my main character but I don't want to. I like Connor's character, I just can't seem to write it comfortably.

This is a lot of obsessing when I need to just finish my first draft and do most of the work in edits but I don't like my discomfort over writing him. Recently, I stumbled over some old first drafts of books I'd emailed myself out of fear for my computer's life (and since I hadn't yet invested in a memory stick) and was enjoying reading some of my work from 2009. I expected to be reading a lot of cringe worthy phrasing and conversation only to get a huge shock when I realized my characters in a book from five years ago had deeper characters and less awkward conversations than characters I have now. As you can guess, it was just a bit disheartening.

Why haven't I gotten better with age? I thought age was to writing like it was to good wine. It only got better.

Stepping back, I observed a few things. One, my old books were all written third person which meant I could give a different spin on people as opposed to the observations from inside someone's head which is what I've been writing since I started Only Human in June of 2011. Secondly, I was much younger and still basing my characters off of people in movies. Dialogue wasn't difficult because I could watch my show and pretty much transfer their way of speaking and words over to my book. Back then, I didn't worry about what people would think if they read my cheesy dialogue; I just thought I'd be the only one seeing it. Now, even though it's at the back of my mind, it's a constant nagging that at some point all my deep thoughts, possibly unrealistic characters as well as far fetched plot twists will see the light of day and the eyes of loving family and total strangers who don't care about trashing the name of a girl they wouldn't recognize on the street. This leads me to something that lies hidden in every character I've ever written. I am extremely insecure.

Insecurity is something that seems to lurk in pretty much everyone in some way or other. I'm outgoing, laugh a lot, and state my opinions without shame. Or so it seems. People are a lot more willing to bluntly, or sometimes harshly, give me back what they think I can handle. I retaliate by trying to be even more confident and outgoing than before when in reality, what they say hurts. It's a stupid character flaw and one I think about quite often.

I didn't put this character flaw in Abby because she was her own character and because at sixteen, I didn't really know I had it. In my novella I wrote in February there were shades of it spread throughout Alex's character. She is outgoing and pretends to be much tougher than she actually is. I realized when I was writing Cameron, the male MC, that he was the kind of guy who could see through what she was doing easily, making him be just the kind of guy she needed as a friend.

At some point, I might be brave enough to put some of my old stories on here but I might wait until I actually have some positive recognition for my released world before I release my fifteen year old writing on an unsuspecting world. And when I say unsuspecting, I mean unsuspecting :)

Write again tomorrow. I'm thinking about posting some of my character interviews on here, at least the parts that won't give away too much of the story. They are subject to change since I might write out characters or change the plot flow entirely so, be warned.

Anna Leigh

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