Friday, April 3, 2009

Love Them Or Hate Them

You-the-writer must have empathy for your characters. You have to like them — or hate them. I’m not saying believe they’re real — that road leads to the Palace of Psychosis, and nobody will visit you there except to mock — but you have to let them into your heart as well as your head. It’s that emotional connection that allows you to care about them, not as the means to deliver a message, or to flip a twist, but as actual individuals going through hell. Once you care about them, you can make other people care about them, too.

If you don’t? if you’re emotionally removed from your characters, or see them merely as markers to be moved along the story, in order to achieve a final goal? The most brilliant prose in the world won’t do you for d---.
(Laura Anne Gilman)

Authentic characters are an intrinsic element to excellent writing. I will read just about anything in any genre if I am captivated by the characters. I need to love the hero and heroine. I must empathize with their struggles, be frustrated with their faults, and sit on pins and needles as their choices spiral the entire plot out of control. I need to despise and fear the villain. I need to reach out with shaky hands to peel away the outer layer and view the ruins beneath what makes him tick. I need to sink beneath the skin of each character until their Voice is as recognizable as my own, their reactions are second-nature, their joys make me pump my fist in victory, and their tragedies cut into me as if they were my own.

When a writer can usher me into each character's inner sanctum, I don't care about genre, plot, or setting. I'm hers.

How do we as writers seduce our readers with our characters? I've talked about authentic motivation, a deep understanding of what formed our characters, and never pushing them in a certain direction simply because our synopsis tells us we should.

The above quote sums up another aspect of writing compelling characters in one little line--You have to like them — or hate them.

If your characters don't inspire emotion in you, how can they possibly inspire emotion in others?

I'm sure each writer approaches learning her characters in different ways. My approach is simple, though any non-writers reading this will probably think I'm in need of some Prozac and a nice padded room. =) My characters come to life in my head. Usually, the germ of an idea for a book or series arrives first and I start asking myself who the main characters are. I get details in fits and starts. One day I'll be driving and I'll realize the heroine has long red hair and a barbed wire tattoo around her neck.

But why the tattoo? I ask myself.

A few days later, the answer comes and with it, the knowledge that her past is a sticky mess and she's addicted to pecan pancakes swimming in maple syrup.

Are those two items related? Not really. They're details. And over the course of months (Yes, months!), the picture forms. I get to know her past. Her mission. Her personality. Her appearance. Her home. Her dreams. Her faults. The cracks running through her foundation that make her who she is. By the time I sit down to write her book, I know which album on my iTunes best fits her story, what she's wearing in the first scene, and how she's likely to react to the crap I'm about to throw her way.

I'm finishing another small bout of revisions to SF's ending, I'm plotting (kind much plotting as this Pantser can do) TF, and the glimmers of the final book in the series (BF--which does NOT stand for best friend or boy friend or any other ridiculous texting shorthand) are already clamoring for attention.

BUT, the heroine for the series I want to write after Fate is finished is loudly claiming her corner of my mind. And so is her hero. By the time I get to her, I'll know her as well as I know myself. I like her. I'm afraid for her. I want her to succeed. I know the obstacles in her way are enough to break her if she doesn't adapt (which isn't her strong suit). The villains she'll face scare me. So much so that I refuse to delve into one of them until I absolutely have to because it's the stuff of nightmares.

And guess what? The heroine for the series after that is already taking shape.

This is just one writer's way of learning her characters. Each writer has to find the method that works best for them. How you do it doesn't matter, but if you don't sink beneath your characters' skin, your reader won't either. Love your characters. Not the idea of the character that first graced your page, but the real, fleshed-out person--in all her beauty and flaws--and your reader will too. Hate your villain--don't hold him back from scaring you senseless--and your reader will too.

Happy writing.


  1. Excellent post, CJ.

    My characters come to life in similar ways. Before I write a word, I've spent weeks--sometimes months--thinking about the characters and their lives and persona. It helps if I write character sketches, a biography of sorts.

  2. Forgot to add--- for a dizzy gal, this is quite wonderful. Not bad for a head injury.

  3. You bring up a very important point to characterization. It can be tempting to say, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." If you don't spend true time with your characters and get to know them completely, you end up with an unintentional satirization of what you think the reader wants to see. I love when I discover my characters' flaws.

    It's exciting to flesh out details that, sometimes, will never see the inside of a book. I recently bought a notebook and pens (hey, any excuse for new pens) in order to write out a bible for my world and characters. It has been a wondrous and fulfilling process.

  4. Ah, lovely advice. Now, if only I could get my BICHOK. Dern procrastination.
    (I was looking at your Twitter updates, I'm sorry about your kittay. :( Mom and I are still waiting for Demon Dog to become allergic to humans, no such luck.)
    (YES, it is 3:56 AM, computer, No I will not sleep. Insomnia loves me. Or hates me. Whichever. Eh, it's Spring Break anyway over here, why should I care?)

  5. Bubblevicious - (I keep typing "viscous" for some reason which is kind of eww.) You're right. I hate reading books where the character is completely two-dimensional. Also, I agree with you on the new notebooks and pens thing. Have a hard time resisting those myself.

    AngDot - At risk of sounding like I'm not plugged in to the latest acronyms or whatever this is--what in the world does BICHOK stand for? I have no idea. And thanks. I'm trying an intense homeopathic remedy to build her immune system fast and hoping it helps. I found one case online where that worked. Still, I'm trying to resign myself to the fact that we might lose her.

  6. BICHOK; funny little acronym used to tease Ang Dot for her procrastination; Butt in Chair, Hands On Keyboard.
    See? It TAUNTS me.

  7. And here I thought it meant Brilliant Intense Clever Handmaiden Of Kerry.

  8. Reason Numero Uno I hate War and Peace so much.

    :D K

  9. I understand your fingers' insistence on using the wrong word. Try typing that in as your user name with sandpaper contacts and soupy brain fog. At least you have the concussion excuse.

  10. Well, I agree 100%. You don't have to twist my writing hand very far for me to admit I love my characters in the way you describe. They constantly surprise me. Great post.


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