Thursday, September 9, 2010

Telepathy and Characterisation

I don't know if you have ever read Stephen King's book On Writing, but one of the things that really stuck in my head was his description of writing as telepathy.

In essence what you are doing is very carefully crafting your own Thought and placing that down in a special format that can be interpreted by another person. All the thoughts, images and musings on themes (both conscious and unconscious), particular word choices, phrases . . . You are communicating this directly into the brain of another human being - across time and space. When you sit down to read a classic, you are opening a window into the mind of that long-dead author. Meshing your thoughts up against theirs and for a moment provoking a state within yourself that echoes that of the original creator.

Recently I have been thinking about this in terms of character. As writers we all try to craft our characters well. We want them fleshed out, with believable reactions and thoughts, consistent backstory and good dialogue. We want their purpose to be consistent with where they have come from, and their goal to echo their nature. But these characters cannot help but be an extension of what we are. The ones we like are those that have characteristics that we respect, or perhaps aspire to. Or perhaps they live the life we may dream of, strive for what we dare not. The antagonists are the opposite - encapsulating all the attributes we perceive as negative, and standing directly in the path to the hero (otherwise there would be no conflict on this level).

So these characters end up projected right into the mind of the reader. I would contend that at this point their is an immediate judgement - just as the human mind forms immediate conclusions about strangers you may be introduced to. Either you like them, or you don't. You have an immediate connection, or you are left underwhelmed. And just as the same person can either be the love of someone's life or a dull stranger (for different people), your characters can strike a chord with the book-buying public or potential editors or fail to create this response.

Now, of course there are some elements of human nature that are nearly always appealing. We love the girl who saves the kitten, or the man who cares about his friend. But when we extend to other elements of character, the reader can simply not connect with your crafted thought-projection.

In story, its the old scenario at the crit group. You circulate the story and find that two people loved the character, two hated them and four hardly care about them - and crit your word choices instead.

Have you come across situations where your characters have both connected to and underwhelmed different readers? Have you ever had one editor rave about your characters while another fails to care about them? Have you ever hunted down a book that everyone was raving about, only to find you either hated the characters or found them vacuous?

PS: I may be out of Internet range over the next day or so, will try to log in wireless, but apologies if I do not respond to posts.


Scott said...

An editor didn't get past my first chapter because he hated the main character-- which bugged me a bit seeing the character wasn't supposed to be a particularly nice character at that point. Several other editors have thought the murderous, thieving, amoral troll was the best character. And he is.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, it's been interesting with my latest series reading the reviews. There are 3 VP characters.

Each reviewer seems to like one of them particularly. And they like them for different reasons.

I guess you can't appeal to everyone.

Ben Godby said...

A likeable character is important; but as Orson Scott Card points out in "Characters and Viewpoint," it's also a matter of developing story-appropriate ones. For one thing, traits that might seem universally appealing can create immediate sympathy, but it usually immediately fades; the most memorable characters are usually unusual, rather than stereotypes. On the other hand, this isn't always true, because sometimes the character isn't the most important aspect of a given story: it's the situation, world, or event they're caught up in. In this case, characters must still be believable and sympathetic; but they are effectively placeholders for the unveiling of things greater than the individual, and as such will envelop more generalities.

That said: my characters are frequently lost on my readers, probably because they are all infused with a tacit sense of irony and humour that my readers don't necessarily share with me!


MataPam said...

"Well, you know, I was hoping she'd fall in love with the other fellow . . . "

Some of my readers don't like the men in my book. Or at any rate, don't think much of my matchmaking.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Ben, Matapam and Scott,

At least we love our characters!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Scott. Only goes to show you have to stick with your initial conception. You can only go so far with characterisation - after that its down to reader expectations.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I think you have done very well with the KRK characters. At least each reviewer had one that they liked. If they did not like any of them, then that would be a little nerve-wracking:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Ben. Good point. The balance between setting and character is down to the book.

You just need to keep trying different markets until you find a editor who gets your characters. I'm sure the readers are out there that will love what you are doing.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. Managing reader expectation is a tough thing. But, even if they complain about the male characters, do they still keep reading? Sometimes the things people bitch about in crit as exactly the things you should NOT change. Its that tension in the reader that is drawing them through. Boy, this is a complex business.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Rowena. "Characters so cranky, only their writer could love them":)

Synova said...

"Well, you know, I was hoping she'd fall in love with the other fellow . . . "

Oh, dear.

I remember one little Harlequin in particular that just offended me beyond all reason. Instead of deciding to be with the staid New Zealand sheep farmer that adored her, she went off island hopping with the irresponsible black-sheep.

I read this in high school... maybe even junior high school. Perhaps I was an unnatural child, but I figured that expecting an unreliable person to be reliable in love was foolish and the lady in the book was an idiot.

I may not have recognized the clues as to who the hero was going to be, or maybe the author really did try to be mysterious about it. I got to the end, though, and I was really mad.

Fast forward 30 years and I was in the local RWA chapter and critiquing someone's first 20 pages. Her problem was that people who read them kept on assuming that one of her secondary characters was the romantic hero. The problem seemed obvious enough to me... she'd described his *hair*. It was wavy. I suggested that she avoid describing the hair (beyond color) or eyes of any man in the book other than the romantic hero.

I never got a chance to ask her if that worked.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

One of the things I find helpful in building characters are the "incidental character traits" that round the character out, even when they don't exactly advance the plot. Like... gah... playing the violin. It eventually wraps around the plot, but it also helps flesh out the character as a real being.

MataPam said...


In my case, the heroine ends up with the older guy who rescues her and is rescued by her, appreciates her brains, and encourages her to try anything she wants.

My reader thought she should have fallen for the undercover policeman who showed no signs of romantic attachment at all, and would have made a horrible husband anyway.

Oh, and the number of readers who were sure she ought to have lost weight by the end of the story. Yikes! I apparently challenged some tradition that said the girl couldn't have a happily ever after until she was slender.