"Be so good they can't ignore you."
~ STEVE MARTIN advising prospective young comics.This week's quote has nothing specific to do with the post at hand, but it's so good that everyone, no matter their field of endeavor, needs to make it their motto for life.
This week's post is about characters, and one of the ways that writers employ to make them compelling, and make no mistake, compelling characters are fiction. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough: If you, as a writer, get your characters right, they will take care of everything else.
So today, I'm going to discuss yet another way we can use to make a character deep, nuanced, convoluted, and dare I say, compelling: Wounds. No, not knife and gunshot wounds, but the kind we all suffer in our daily lives, from unthinking parents and uncaring bosses to thoughtless friends and tactless acquaintances. We all carry baggage from the time we were old enough to understand body language; after we begin to understand spoken language, they get deeper. I was made to feel utterly inadequate as a child, and that I would never amount to anything. Regular followers are familiar with my periods of depression, and the oft-voiced belief that I have no business doing this.
Thanks for that, grandmas. Without any grounds for thinking it, I am at least partially convinced that the reason I write is to show the parents, teachers, and peers who so often called me stupid that I'm not.
But I'm not here to do an exposé on my less-than-stellar childhood. Everyone has these ghosts, these inexorable spirits that haunt them, no matter how they try to banish them. They engender false beliefs about themselves and the world around them that hinder and handicap every effort they make to advance themselves in a task, or in life in general. These beliefs are almost never true, but they always make perfect sense to the person who holds them. In literary terms, these false beliefs are the "character flaws," and every memorable character has them.
Perfect characters are uniformly dull and uninteresting. This is where planning really comes into its own. The difference between a character that is allowed to randomly assemble herself as the narrative unfolds can't hold the coat of one that was designed from scratch with a range of well-thought-out flaws that were carefully assembled to come from a reasonable source. This is hard to explain, but an example may suffice: A hatchet-wielding Temperance Union matron is likely to have come from a strict religious background, and maybe (probably?) a home with a father that used to get drunk and beat up the wife and kids on a daily basis. But a fun-loving flapper who routinely drinks as part of her social life is most unlikely to be numbered among her fellow crusaders. Think about where these flaws and questionable traits had rise, and don't give a character too many. One big one and one or two smaller ones should be plenty. For a main character, an added treat is if you can give him a secret that he would kill or die to prevent coming to light. This is more closely associated with a villain, but a hero can certainly have one, and once you the writer know what that is, it will inform everything the character does, and he will fairly leap off the page with intensity.
Once the underlying flaw or secret is identified, give it full rein. The story goal, especially for the protagonist, must conflict with his beliefs arising from that flaw, and he must overcome it and resolve it in order to resolve the needs of the story. To see this in action, look no further than Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, its final scene on the bell tower being one of the most powerful in cinema. Imagine the weakness of that scene had Jimmy Stewart's character not been terrified of heights. Now make a paralyzing fear of heights the secret that a police officer is hiding, hint it to the readers, and put her in a place where the life of a hostage (a child for maximum effect) depends on her overcoming it before backup arrives, and you have your compelling character in spades. Put her on the page, allow her to fight to overcome her flaws, and bask in the epic reviews as she takes your story and your reputation as a writer to heights (no pun intended) you never dreamed of.
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I'm going to take a moment to introduce my readers to a new blogging friend of mine, Phoebe Darqueling. Phoebe is a fellow steampunk author I met when I set up the soon-to-be defunct Punk Fiction Writers Guild. I have read her blog, For Whom the Gear Turns, a few times, and enjoy her style, but moved in for a discussion when she posted a review of Master of the World. I invite steampunk enthusiasts of every stripe to pay her a visit and say hello, and maybe bookmark her site for the long haul. As well as being a writer, she is a maker, and a reviewer of books, TV, and movies. She has a great deal to say, and an interesting way of saying it, so stop by soon and often; you could do worse!
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News on the Beyond the Rails III rewrite is nonexistent, as I have put it on hold for the next week. My daughter, who picks up, feeds, and tutors some children after school is off next week, as school is out of session, and instead of continuing to provide her service as she usually does, she is taking the week off. So am I. This works because the second edit was finished last week, so by the time I get back to start the third edit on the 28th, things won't be so fresh in my mind, and difficult to change because I'm just in love with my own prose. Hopefully, the third edit will wrap it up, but if it doesn't, nothing says there can't be a fourth. The only problem with that is that history shows that by the time I start the fourth edit, I'm changing things back to the way they were originally. We'll just have to see what happens, but the bottom line is that I'm not going to think about Beyond the Rails III for the next eight days, and maybe a few more beyond that. This blog is exempt from that particular moratorium, so you can look forward to even more of my pearls of wisdom later this week. Try to contain your enthusiasm!
I'm going to stop giving out a date for the next blog post, as every time I do that, I miss it. I'll just say it will be between four and eight days, and let it go at that. Keep an eye out...
That's it for this week. Until we meet again, play nice, watch out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!