Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Writing With Depth
When I begin a story, I take time to get to know the characters that populate the story's world. For me, that entails watching conversations between the characters (Yes, these take place inside my head. Yes, if you aren't a writer, you find that incredibly strange.) and asking questions about the characters so I can learn them from the inside out.
It's important to learn them from the inside out. Characters, like ogres, have layers.
Or they should.
Few things turn me away from an author faster than characters who are simple parodies of the basic character archetypes. Or worse, characters who behave in ways clearly meant to help the author stick to her synopsis. These are cookie-cutter characters with zero depth and I'm simply not interested in reading unless I can sink beneath a character's skin and live there for the duration of the story.
How do writers avoid creating cookie-cutter characters? By asking questions. Then asking another. Then another until we wind our way to the heart of our character.
For example, I'm getting to know Grace, my heroine from Twisting Fate. I've known for quite some time that she's agoraphobic but I didn't know why. Knowing why is crucial. I can't simply write her as agoraphobic and expect my reader to just accept it. Every behavior is rooted in the soil of past experience, watered with a character's perceptions of her reality, and fed a steady diet of whatever keeps that character from embracing a new behavior. Could be fear. Could be anger. Could be a desire to protect or control. Could be a combination of things but something sparked that behavior, solidified it into habit, and holds it steady within that character's mind.
To learn why Grace is agoraphobic, I asked the following questions:
1. What symptoms of agoraphobia does she exhibit?
2. Are there any places where those symptoms don't occur?
3. Moving beyond the symptoms, what is she afraid might happen if she's in a crowd?
4. Why is she afraid of that?
By the time I answered #4, I had it. I understood the terrible, awful something that caused Grace to exhibit symptoms of agoraphobia. I knew what she feared and why. I knew the worst that could happen if she was trapped in a crowd and I knew what lived inside of her that kept her from moving away from this behavior.
Now that I know what has Grace so twisted up inside, I can see the events of the story through her eyes, colored by her perceptions, and her actions will be based in what I've learned of her, not on what my synopsis says should happen. She'll have depth. Layers.
I also know that Grace is a courageous woman with super powers. How can courage, super powers, and agoraphobia exist in the same woman?
I asked questions to understand the nature of Grace's courage, the choices she's currently making that look like courage/protective nature to her, and I understood what would happen when events in the story put her agoraphobia (and its cause) in direct conflict with her courage.
I did that because no character is ever just one thing. Characters, like ogres, have layers. Motives. Fears. Desires. Convictions. Blind spots. Vices. Wounds. Conflicting thoughts/behavior. The characters who struggle with these things, who let us inside their heads for a front row seat to their own private war, are the ones we love to read. The ones who keep us coming back for more.
What layers can you add to your characters by asking questions? What character trait or behavior does a character exhibit that you've yet to really explore? Better yet, what are you waiting for? Go add some layers. :)