Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Breath of Life

Today is Writing Wednesday. So let's talk about the art of writing, and let's specifically talk about those pesky characters that inhabit the settings you've created. 

I received a call from my sister last night. She is also a writer and has her own blog right HERE. You should visit her some time and tell her I sent you. She does write some darned good posts over there. But, back to our conversation, which actually turned out to be the basis for this post. The phone call went something like this:

"Are you characters real?" she asked.
"Well, they're real to me."
"Yes. They seem real to me, too," she replied."But what makes them real?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, some of the characters in the stories I read just don't seem real. Others do. I'm wondering if the author writes them in such a way that they don't seem real. I mean, does the author do that on purpose?"

I didn't have an answer for her. We talked for a while about it, and the name of Neil Gaiman came up along with the button-eyed-other-mother in Coraline. This character seemed very two-dimensional and not very "real" to me when I met her—at least not real in the same sense that Coraline seemed real. 

After giving it a bit more thought, I felt confident that, with Neil's writing talent, he must have created those not-so-real images intentionally. But, I wasn't 100% certain of that. Perhaps, if Neil reads this blog, he can answer that question personally for us. If you know Neil, please ask him to visit us and leave a comment with the answer we're looking for.

Since we didn't come up with a real answer to the question, our conversation ended and we hung up. But the remnants remained in my head, and a related question started festering and pestering the back of my brain. It was simply this: How do you breathe life into a character and make them into a real person in the reader's mind? What are the ingredients of life that you need to include? I knew some research was in my immediate future before I could put it to rest. Much of the following information was gleaned from an article compiled by writing coach Jessica Morrell. I think she's done a very good job on covering some of the basic elements. In fact, her website is a wealth of information on writing. I highly recommend it. Click HERE and bookmark it for later perusal.

The suggestions below will get you started.

1. Create characters a reader has never met before.
Bring your characters onto the stage with pizzazz, make them memorable, solid and consistent from the first moment they come into view—bigger than life. Whenever possible, bring your characters to life through all the five senses. Don't be lazy and only show us what the narrator sees.

2. Ingredients of a great character
Characters are formed from a group of traits that are consistent and memorable. As you bring your characters to life, first create a base of dominant and important traits. These traits will remain consistent throughout the story and will be important to the events of the plot. It is best to open with a scene, event, or description that displays these traits. Our first impressions of a character should convey one or more of his or her dominant traits. Examples of these traits: strong, intelligent, brave, clever, self-assured, rash, headstrong. Second, add character tags and traits such as smoking, fidgeting, quality of voice that complement and deepen the main traits. Third, add more traits that reveal the complexity of your character. These are traits that appear contradictory, but only appear after the dominant layer is officially established.

3. Use action to reveal character
Whenever possible, characterize through action. Show your characters talking, debating, reaching decisions, doubting, hesitating, or pulling out all the stops. 

4. Larger-than-life characters 
Make your main characters somehow extraordinary or bigger than life. They should stand out in crowd—although that doesn't necessarily mean they must be flashy, just unforgettable. Fictional characters are made of heroic proportions. There is generally something exaggerated or enlarged about who they are. They are important and memorable.  While they can share some traits with your family members, friends, or neighbors, they are much more compelling and vivid. The reader must believe that they are unique, unusual, special, one-of-a-kind.

5. Showing off your characters
Luckily for fiction writers, techniques for revealing character are many. Characters are portrayed via exposition, description, narration and action. Characters are portrayed by conflict with their environment, conflict with other characters, action, self-discovery, self-realization, and change. Dialogue tags can reveal character including physical traits, appearance, mannerisms, habits, expressions and gestures. You can also reveal a character through a self-portrait or confession, anecdotes, dialogue, tastes, interests, possessions, setting, the opinion of others, thoughts, introspection and decisions. (You might want to visit THIS POST regarding dialogue and vocabulary.)

6. Creating emotional impact
In Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction, Robin Carr gives the following advice on creating emotional impact via characterization:

'...but they are still just people on the page until your reader relates or understands or believes, or all three. This relationship between reader and character is an emotional experience. Delivering emotion is a tall order. And, it's not just learning to write about emotionally charged situations or learning to describe emotions. It means creating the EXACTLY RIGHT emotions for the particular happening. Sometimes they are subtle. Sometimes a slow tear traveling down a dusty cheek can cause a wrenching in the gut even more succinctly than screaming rage. For this, the writer must know himself well...' 

Carr goes on to recommend that a writer read a novel with the sole purpose of picking up emotional connections. She suggests that as you read you learn to recognize an emotional response in yourself. You may also want to analyze exactly how the writer brought about the reaction.

So there you have what my quick research discovered. I'm certain there is a lot more info out there and other great suggestions and things to keep in mind that will help breathe life into your characters. Feel free to leave a comment on anything that's worked for you in your writing. 

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