Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I CAN feel your pain



*As usual I write five times as much as I planned to. Feel free to throw rotten fruit or something*

In this Frankenstein Business we’ve been dealing with – or if you prefer, this divinity business – of bringing our dead creations to life, a good point has been made for how this is accomplished. Matapam says it’s all empathy – and she might be right. As I’ve said before I do 99% of this subconsciously, so it’s hard to say what I did before they came to life.

Unlike Dave I don’t usually write lists of what the characters do or what they like. His practice strikes me as imminently sensible, I just never had to do it. I did once, long ago, interview a character, but that was because the rat fink wouldn’t let me hear his voice. In fact, I think I do what he does, but in the back of my brain, until the voice emerges fully formed. I’m almost sure I do, because of the sudden, brilliant insights. “God it. Her dad was a succubus. No wonder her mom is messed up.” These come to me at the oddest times, when I’m not even aware of thinking about the book, usually after I’ve laid down the note pad (my last tool in attempting to force the character to talk to me) and start doing housework to tire myself out enough that I can rest. (When trying to force a character/novel into the open, I have the cleanest house in the world.) Some of my best ideas have come while ironing or waxing floors.

(And wouldn’t that make a great T-shirt? Writing is Just Playing Frankenstein With Words.)

So let’s assume Matapam is right -- how do we build that empathy? Well, one thing I know you can’t do and that is take the easiest route. You can’t have the character come over and tell us everything everyone has done him wrong. Why not? Well... because people tend to react the same way as if a stranger had rung their doorbell and started crying all over them. “My boyfriend left me! I burned the roast! My boss fired me!” They slam the door – or the book – shut, run inside the house and ignore the character forever.

This said what CAN we do? Isn’t feeling sorry for the character a way to build Empathy. Yeah, it is, but... if I may say so, it is one of the weakest ones. Forming a bond with a character is like forming a bond with a friend. Are your best friends people you feel sorry for? Or do you, after a few days/months/years of being the adult in the relationship start hoping that your friend would grow up already. You catch yourself saying “She’s a good girl/guy, but...”

So, who are your friends? People who are interesting. People who do/know things you don’t. People whose reactions you can’t anticipate, but make perfect sense when they happen. People who live lives you love to hear about. People you have a great time with. People who are there for you when you fall and for whom you’re there when they fall. People you’d like to have at your back in a pinch.

The last one is difficult. If you try leaning on a character when you’re in distress, you’re likely to end up with a badly bent book. On the other hand, the character might provide you with a model for facing a horrible situation.

To my mind there are two great ways of imprinting a character forever in a reader’s mind. One I use rarely because it’s very easy to botch and also because it’s the weaker bond than the other.


This less desirable way is to make Writing is a game of first impressions. If your character comes across as a complete monster on page one, you might realize he’s a saint by page 100, but sometimes the reader doesn’t come along with you. (I once lost a reader – in a contest, so I knew from her confused notes – on page three because I described my hero as “he had hands like shovels.” She kept writing on the side of the chapters every time he appeared “but I thought he was the bad guy” from then on.) I call this the “don’t show him drowning puppies first thing off” rule. If you’re trying to write this, you need to think big canvas and bright colors. If the character is drowning puppies in the first chapter, you’d better find out in chapter two that he did it to save ALL the children in world and at great personal pain, because his religion says those who drown puppies are damned.

So, why is this the weaker bond? Because it’s based on guilt. You want to read more about the character and spend more time with him to atone for having misjudged him.

The more desirable way is to make you admire the character. To see him doing something that is universally considered good, at some cost to himself. Then you will find yourself wanting to know this person better. After that care must be taken. A hero without pores, a hero who doesn’t sweat, attaches nobody.

I have found personally my most memorable characters – my own characters, not those I read – tend to be people who are larger than life, but also, to post on a theme in the blog before, functionally insane. I.e. insane, knowing their own insanity and harnessing it.

Athena in Darkship Thieves is one of them, but you never really have a “dime drop” moment, mostly because she doesn’t stop long enough for you to get it. There’s the little tells, when she talks of juvie halls and madhouses as places she’s intimately acquainted with at a young age, and you start wondering what kind of family she has.

But then there is Athos, in my Musketeer Mysteries. Athos is an unstably wrapped little cookie. We of course know it’s because of his wife and what he had to do. I’m not stupid, I brought that up in first book. But there is still this feeling of “something not right” and a sense he was screwed up long before he was old enough to be married. This sense that he’s on the side of angels, but if he ever lets go, there will be bodies stacked like corded wood.

And I had NO idea why. That was just how he came across in my mind and on the page, but he wouldn’t tell me the reason – which, if you think about it, he wouldn’t.

Then on the fifth book – FIFTH and likely the last for a while at least – *Dying By The Sword* he delivers himself of a gem which, I think (not sure if it’s true but it is for me) immediately raised empathy. We know him as admirable and self contained. We also know he can’t unbend without some primal rage emerging. And then this came out. What do you think? Am I right that it builds empathy or at least gives us insight?

* – in that moment he reminded Athos of his father.

Athos’ father had been one of those people never very at ease near children. An only child, who in turn had sired Athos late in life, Monsieur Gaetan Comte de La Fere had treated Athos as an object of intense scrutiny – at a distance – until Athos had been breached at six or so. And then, suddenly, Athos’ father had decided that Athos was no a man, or at least a youth. It was as though nothing existed, in the late Comte’s mind between the mewling infant and the striding man. And so, he’d expected Athos to be proficient at horseback riding, competent enough with a sword for the honor challenges that might be befit any noble, and cultured too, so that his speech wouldn’t lead his inferiors to sneer at him.

Athos, a dutiful son, had learned the riding and the sword fighting from the masters’ provided and, though struggling, always managed to exceed the prowess of those ten times his seniors. Even the Latin and the Greek impinged upon him by yet another set of masters, the poetry, the diction – even that he learned and effortlessly.

Of the rituals and demands his father enforced on him far too young, there was only one that Athos had resented, but that one he had resented absolutely and with a raging hatred. Because every night, from the age of seven or so, he’d been brought into his father’s study and sat, across from his father, at a table that had been designed as a chessboard, and upon which elaborate, expensive China pieces were set.

Athos didn’t resent that his father expected him to play chess. He didn’t even resent that the late Comte gloried in winning games over his small son. What he resented – the memory that still made his bile rise at the back of his throat – was that the rules of the game had never been explained to him. Night after night, he’d sat there, and learned all the moves by trying them the wrong way first. Night after night, day after day, he’d brooded on the losses. And every night his father smiled at him, with the exact same smile that the Cardinal was now giving him.

Something to the movement of the Cardinal’s eyes made Athos realize he’d been inching his hand towards his sword, and he pulled it back by an effort of will. The day after his father had died, in a ritual composed part of grief and part of relief, he had taken the beautiful entaglio chess table, and all the chess pieces. He’d smashed the chess pieces in the depths of the garden, before setting fire to the table.

Now his fingers itched for the fire to set beneath the Cardinal’s feet, *

17 comments:

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

what? No one has any comments? RIGHT. I'll sing now.

Kate said...

Ack! Nooooo! Please don't sing: we only just replaced the windows from last time!

The question of how you convince readers they want to know what happens to your characters is an interesting one. I think you missed the third way, useful only for starting with the - for lack of a better word - villain, and that's basically the opposite of what you do with your hero: you make the SOB such a total bastard people will read on in the hope of getting a nice, satisfying death scene, preferably delivered by the bastard's evil conniving or the hero he's tried so hard to ruin. Or both, which is even more satisfying.

It's a risky tactic, since it can induce a bad case of "ew!" and defenestrated books, but it can also be very effective when done well.

Needless to say this should be something you do with your antagonist anyway :)

Amanda Green said...

No singing, please! Especially not if O'Mike is in the building with you.

I guess I fall somewhere between you and Dave when it comes to knowing what my characters do, like, etc. In Nocturnal Origins, which I hope will one day find its way into print, I KNEW my main characters long before they made their way onto the page. They'd been developing in the back of my mind along with the plot for some time. As a result, Origins poured out when I started writing it.

Russian Nights, my current WIP, is a little different. Because it's sett in 1913 Russia, I'm having to keep a closer watch on my characters. Not only because of the names, and boy is it fun keeping track of all the Russian spelling variations, but also because I have historical characters mixing with fictional ones. I need the additional help to keep their motivations, histories, appearances straight.

What I have never been able to successfully do is create, for lack of a better word, a character bible, much like a tech bible. I've seen courses for writers where they are told to fill out page after page after page of character information. It is too detailed for me. By the time I finished filling out the pages, I really didn't want to have to deal with the character. It was simply too much work.

On occasion, I have to go back in my manuscript and check hair color or eye color, that sort of thing. When I have to do that more than a couple of times, that's my signal to stop and build a quick character list with main descriptors. Keywords about appearance, beliefs, motivations. If I still am having trouble, that's my signal that I'm fighting the characters and killing the story as a result.

Yes, Sarah, I've been listening to you. I do over-edit and over-think. [G] And, seeing that I've droned on too long and my coffee cup is empty, I'll stop.

matapam said...

I think empathy is helped by some emotions, and hindered by others. Whining Characters, trying to make the readers fell sorry for them . . . those are uncomfortable feelings and we hates them. Now anger, a good temper tantrum gets the juices flowing and we like getting mad with characters. Or happy. Helps the story, too, IMO.

I've got a short story that starts with the POV character's room mate stealing her boyfriend. Hardly an Earth shattering problem. But a good angry "I'm going to break a few things, and then I'm going to get even" leads to interesting things, where sobbing about the unfairness of it all would be tedious. And make for a very forgetable character, both for the writer and the reader.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

well, a mad character is a lot more fun to read. I mean, look at Athena. She comes on stage kicking *ss and taking names... and though I tacked a lot of character development there, even the romantic scenes partake of this interior rage of hers.

Kate said...

Yep, Athena certainly does keep that fire burning. So much so that the new courting customs in Eden include armored codpieces ;)

(so sorry, couldn't resist)

matapam said...

For the men. Strip searches for the women.

Definitely a bent character. Hmm, maybe my female characters are just too sensible. I'll have to think about adding mayhem.

warpcordova said...

I don't know, Sarah. I really like a character who is both strong willed and yet has weakness as well. It's odd, I know. But when I read someone like Travis S. Taylor's early characters, I tend to cringe because they're Superman. And while Superman is a very strong and heroic character, he's boring.

Then you get to see, say, Batman in action... and we see the strengths and weaknesses. Just my opinion.

cohort said...

Do you want that as a shirt? I can make you a deal...

-- Alex

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

WOW, Sarah, love that backstory for Athos.

Kate, make us hate the villain or long to see an injustice fixed. Good idea.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Warpcordova -- I think you hit the nail on the head with characters who have a weakness.

I love reading about a character who has some secret terrible flaw.

kesalemma said...

One of my favourite characters is Dirk from the Second Sons series by Jennifer Fallon.

When you first meet him he's a drug-runner. Throughout the series his actions escalate, yet you still empathise with him, and want him to win, even though he looks to be consumed by evil - because he's doing it all for the "right" reasons.

I know several people who love this series for the same reason.

So having the good guy do bad things is not necessarily a way to turn people off them - it really depends on their reasons.Which need to be established early on if you are going to get away with this sort of thing.

I would love to be able to write a character like this. But I like my characters too much - even the villians. And it shows.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kesalemma

I ruined more books trying to do that... It takes a particular type of mind to manage it. And I'm not saying your character can't do awful things. You just can't show him -- first thing -- doing awful things. Go back to the books and tell me when you FIRST see this character, what is he doing? Not a challenge, I'm curious now and would like to know. If he's first introduced doing something despicable, then my hat is off to the author. It takes a very great talent AND technique. More than I have.

Cohort

Nah, but I'm considering starting a t-shirt shop associated with the blog on cafe press or something like that. Perhaps zazzle. Like, the one advertising electrical prods for characters...

Kate said...

Sarah,

When you find a cattle prod that WORKS, let me know?

My characters just laugh at me.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, Dear Lady,
You had an oxymoron in your post.
i. e... Dave Freer being sensible?!!
Ok, I'll just chalk that up as writer's creative... uh... spin?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dear Anon,

Dave Freer is the most sensible man I know.

Make of that what you will. ;)

WangZheng259 said...

I mentioned earlier that functional insanity is something that I find appealing in a character. In my belated reply to Mr. Freer I tried to discuss how understanding the madness of my characters is part of my mechanism for generating solid ones. (The first step is world building, and I do not know how I get from A to H.)

I make notes on the computer, but keep the vast majority in my head. Partly because I have a very good memory when I am not sick from one thing or another, but partly because I run the idea generator much faster then my slow and imperfect ability to produce writing can handle.

kesalemma: I may look into this series to see if my great hatred for recreational drug use overcomes the skill of the writer.