No Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Listen to fiction writers describe how we work, and you’ll think we’re all Rokus — those small black boxes that sit on your entertainment center and stream programs from the internet to your TV. Most writers will say we sit at our keyboards and type chapters that flow through our heads like scenes in a movie. This sounds easy, but it isn’t. To get to that point takes hard work.

And after we’re done with all the plotting and dialogue, description and pace, our protagonists still need to live and breathe. For this to occur, we must know them well. Authors build their characters in many ways – we cut out pictures of interesting faces, write in-depth histories we’ll never use, poke through our characters’ pockets, their closets, their refrigerators, create lists of hobbies and musical tastes.

Often we come to know our characters better than ourselves, but even then, we aren’t done. There is one more step we must take. For our character and her story to become as vivid for the reader as they are for ourselves, we have to convince the reader to climb inside our protagonist’s head.

Magic happens when our reader looks out through the character’s eyes, feels her emotion, knows why she is driven to do the things that she does. Pull this off, and our reader will not simply read the story, she will smell, taste, fear, hate – burn with his kiss – as if she herself were the character.

So we make our protagonist someone the reader will care about. We make her human, usually likable, sometimes admirable. We challenge her morally or physically, give her something worthwhile to fight for or against, and watch as she struggles to rise above the roadblocks we so gleefully toss in her way. But for our reader to actually experience the action as our protagonist does, we must eliminate all barriers between the reader’s mind and the character’s. Their thoughts have to become one and the same.

This can be accomplished in two steps. First:  present the scene in real time. Second:  filter the action through the protagonist’s impressions and emotions, and as instantly as they would occur in her own mind.

So we wouldn’t write:  The room was cluttered, Julia thought.
The use of the word, “thought,” pulls us out of Julia’s head and feels like a physical separation.

Neither would we write:  The room was stuffed with stacks of newspapers.
This one is better, but we continue to feel like an observer. Our reader is still one degree of separation from Julia.

But if we write:  Julia shoved a stack of magazines aside to make room for her feet. What a dump.
Well, now we’re in business. This last example shows action in real time, and filtered through Julia’s perception. Julia’s thought, ‘What a dump,’ streams through our brain as seamlessly as if it were our own.

No Roku necessary.

Questions For The Day:

  • How can you make your reader feel your character’s experience?
  • How do you build your characters?
  • How do you decide which character’s point of view to use in a scene?

  • tgumster February 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    It’s easy for me to get comfortable with my characters–too comfortable as Leigh says–before I know it, my character and I are enjoying ourselves, which is not always good.

    Yes, I consider my characters friends–I learn from them, often–yet in our story world disbelief suspends at a price. Life plays out in this world because it can not because it will.

    I’ll remember until the next time….

  • Leigh Muller February 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    You raise an interesting question, tgumster. Is it possible to become too close to a character? Could this keep us from giving the character the prerequisite anger or selfishness or rashness required to move the story into conflict? I’ve noticed a tendency for kind people to have trouble making their protagonists misbehave. In life we surround ourselves with people of good quality. But in fiction, we’re better off following the advice stitched on a towel I keep in my kitchen: “If you’ve been naughty, sit right by me.”

  • justin February 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Back in my “younger” years, I suppose I thought characters just sort of came out in a stream-of-consciousness kind of manner along with the rest of the story, and I think when I wrote short stories and the like, this was how I tried to write, but found it excruciatingly difficult to come up with new details for a character to make him/her seem more real to me and the reader.

    I now realize with writing (as well as art, design, etc.) that if you plan your characters and develop them for yourself, it’s much easier to create a character that will convince an audience of his own reality.

    • Leigh Muller February 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm

      Hi Justin.

      Thanks for joining in. It’s interesting how many writers are also trained in art and music. And isn’t it wonderful how training in all of them strengthens our writing? Next Tuesday’s post is on just that.

      Lots of writers discover their characters through stream of consciousness. Some of the most colorful ones in my novel appeared this way. But the characters that give me the greatest trouble are always the ones I identify most closely with (the good guys, of course!) Maybe I’m afraid of exposing too much of myself (my Charleston and Savannah upbringing frowns on that kind of thing). Or perhaps I am too close to myself to see anything at all interesting in my psychological makeup. Then again, maybe I don’t want to look that carefully at my flaws.

      I suspect in your early writings, your protagonist was someone similar to yourself. Because you had a concept of how they SHOULD behave, they were unable to up and live their own vibrant, flawed, and much more interesting (albeit screwed-up) self. Once you decided to break from the character your subconscious offered, you were able to create fully-rounded characters with all their weaknesses, faults, and courage.

  • tgumster February 1, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    I do believe becoming too close to a character is not only possible but a reality, especially if the character has to be naughty or even die. Character development requires a high payoff, as Justin so aptly indicates, because characters–the ones who stay–do not just float in on whim

    Leigh, your example of setting the scene–What a dump–really shows the difference between wallflower and center stage. How do you keep that immediacy rolling?

    • Leigh Muller February 1, 2011 at 3:10 pm

      I think many choices affect immediacy. One is verb tense and choice — active, colorful verbs give immediate energy to sentences and scenes. Also strong description that describes the character’s mood as much as the setting. Of course having enough narrative meat in the scene to drive the action and repay the reader for his time is crucial.

      But perhaps the most important decision a writer makes is to choose the correct character’s point of view for the scene. I usually settle on the character who will be most emotionally walloped by what will occur, although there are exceptions to this. But in general, this choice will naturally give the narrative a more visceral strength.

      I close my eyes, picture myself inside the character’s head, and then I write in his voice, with his temperament, and current state of mind. He has just come from someplace, and that affects him. He has a goal, and it is on his mind. Writing is very similar to acting. We have to put ourselves into character and then the scene. Finally, we must write from the head — the emotional truth of this character, in this moment of his life. Too often we just give our characters stage directions and move him aimlessly about the scene. In the end, I think it is the character’s emotional need, at that exact moment in his life, that most effectively drives the immediacy. Tgumster, you may be correct that characters who float in on a whim may not serve a strong enough purpose in the story. But I am certain — no matter how entertaining or well-delineated a protagonist is — the one thing they can not do is float THROUGH the story. For better or worse, we want our protagonists to make a decision and drive the action.

      Okay, I’m certainly no expert, but that’s my 2 cents. I’d love to hear your ideas and everyone else’s on this.

  • Adrian Fogelin February 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    I find that the characters who I least respect are hardest to write. I know this is a bias, but I find rich characters distasteful, or maybe untasteful. I can’t make them feel believable because I have a hard time believing in them at all. The characters I find easiest to write are the ones I have a great sympathy for (usually losers–hey somebody has to be good at losers).

    I also want to stand up for the quiet character. The wallop needs to be great in some genres, less so in others. You have to consider what the reader expects and requires. You have to know who you are and who your reader is.

    Sometimes when things seem really implausible I have my character do or say the exact opposite of what I had planned. It gives me a good jolt and sometimes turns out to be just right. It is a little like having an opponent fall because you offer less resistance than expected.

    And yes, I think the fact that many writers have other arts experience is expectable. I know that all the painting and drawing I’ve done has made me good at visualizing my stories. And that’s my two cents!

    • Leigh Muller February 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      Adrian, you are one of the best character creators I know. It is heartening to hear that you struggle too. Like you, I have trouble writing characters I don’t like. I also struggle with those I feel are too good. The easiest for me are the ones I would love in real life, the ones that are colorful, have great heart, and like humans, are a mix of strengths and weaknesses. I love your suggestion to have the character do the exact opposite of what you’d planned. Contrast and surprise lift a scene.

      Genre definitely affects our choices. Mine is thriller, so you know I lean toward stronger emotions. But I feel readers are invested more even in quiet characters and their quiet stories if the characters are somehow emotionally moved. If a liberal Peace Corps worker suddenly discovers that she holds some ingrained bit of bigotry within, she would be walloped just as strongly as the protagonist who looks up to find the woman he loves leveling a gun on him and holding hands with his enemy. The first is internal and subtle, the second external and practically shouts, but they are both equally powerful story events in their genres. I write thrillers with plenty of action; you would expect the action to be uppermost on my mind. But really, it is the emotional reaction of my characters TO that action that dictates how I write the scene.

      Excellent discussions today, Folks!

  • tgumster February 2, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Writers have no small reaction to character, in every sense of the word. What an enjoyable discussion!

    In particular, I am drawn to the “quiet character,” who may or may not come in on a whim but once in the room is there to stay–I just know it–although the reason may not be apparent until the end of the story. Most of the time, I let my characters stay around to see how it all works out, and while not all make the final cut, some characters bring their own story.

    One of the things I like best about Roadhouse is I can always find a “real” discussion on craft by and for writers who explore the writing realm, word by word.

    Thanks, everyone!

  • leigh February 2, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Beautifully stated, tgumster; you’re welcome at our table anytime.
    And you bring up another really important point, but it’s too big to add on here. We’ll address the real writer in the room — our subconscious — on another post.

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