Thursday, June 11, 2015

Staying True to Your Characters

A popular post from January 2012.

by Annette Lyon

I love reading a book where the characters are so well-drawn that they feel real. Where I read a description or action and know exactly why this character said, acted, or described something a specific way.

Writing characters that are round instead of flat, who seem to breathe off the page instead of walk around like paper dolls, is hard.

Some time ago I posted about character lenses. That concept is one of my favorite tools for characterization, ever. If you haven't read that post, go read it now to brush up on what I mean by "lenses."

Short version: It's the unique way each character views the world. (But the post explains it in greater detail.)

The crucial part:
Creating a lens does you no good unless that lens colors every page that the character shows up on. If we see it for the first time on page 287, it's useless.

Here are some ways to give your character a lens:

A Defining Characteristic
I've visited the house of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius twice in my lifetime. Both times, a trait of his stood out to me: he was a synesthete, meaning he had what's known as synesthesia.

Synethesia is when two senses that wouldn't normally cross, do. One synesthete may see colors with letters. Another may associate a personality with numbers, and so on.

For Sibelius, sound had color. He had a painting hanging in his house with a lot of a specific shade of yellow that, to him, was D Major. A bright green fireplace was the exact shade of F major. (Apparently he "saw" only major keys, not minor.)

Give your character something that distinguishes them, like synesthesia . . . or something less dramatic.

Does your synesthete hear a shrill minor key when walking in city traffic? Does a lullaby evoke a peaceful light blue? If we learn how your character interacts with their world through their individual attributes, everything will be more alive, even if that attribute isn't nearly as "out there" as synesthesia.

What really gets your character excited?

If it's food, then a totally awesome event should be described in terms of European chocolate or a favorite restaurant's cuisine.

If your character loves to knit, use terms about yarn, stitches, gauges, needles, and the frustration of frogging.

If it's motorcycles, use terms that evoke the passion, whether it's rev and gear, or other things, like the challenge of fixing the engine yourself, running out of gas, a flat tire, or the thrill of wind in your hair.

If your character is a football star and experiences something totally exciting, don't describe it as heavenly; describe it as feeling like he won the Super Bowl.

Whatever your character is good at is likely something that will color their lens.

For some old friends of mine, that would be theater. I could write about an actor and use theater terms to color experiences in the story, events in the story that of themselves have nothing to do with theater. Think green room, opening night jitters, break a leg, flop, standing ovation, etc.

Brandon Sanderson does this well in his Way of Kings. A main character is a soldier, but he's no ordinary soldier; as a boy, he was trained to be a surgeon. He views life (and the battlefield) in terms of a surgeon. He doesn't just see blood; he knows exactly where the man was pierced with a sword and how it must have missed an artery, because of the way the blood flows.

Dad grew up as a farm boy. Mom grew up in a metropolitan European city. People used to joke that they were the embodiment of the Green Acres TV show, and the idea wasn't that far off.

When Dad saw my sister watching Charlotte's Web and crying, he shook his head and said, "Pigs are dirty. And they're food." By this point, he was a professor, but it was the farm boy speaking.

Mom, on the other hand, to this day, finds her eye drawn every time she passes a Jaguar on the road. The metropolitan girl is still there.

A different way of looking at it: A few years ago, PEG's own Heather Moore and I co-chaired a writing conference, and as part of our duties, we picked up a literary agent from the airport. On the way to dinner, she commented about how gorgeous the mountains were.

This was mid-March. As northern Utahns know, that's probably the ugliest time of year for our dear mountains. But for someone who'd never seen mountains like this, close up, they were beautiful.

In a story, a Utahn might not notice the mountains unless the seasons were changing, especially in the fall. But a transplant would.

Along the same vein, a tourist might walk the streets of Manhattan, head back to see the tops of the skyscrapers, and a local would know right away that the other person is a tourist. Locals don't gaze upward at the skyscrapers.

In every scene, get into your point-of-view character's head and mindset. That could mean more than one of these elements. Perrin in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series uses both black smith imagery and wolf imagery as his lens, and both totally work.

As you think about your characters, you'll not so much create a lens for them as much as discover what's already there.


Donna K. Weaver said...

Love this post, especially since I just read Jordan McCollums character post today.

This made me think about an author's blog I read last summer where the author and several family members made a visit to NYC. As they were walking down the street, each person fixated on something different, depending upon what their personal interests were.

Annette Lyon said...

For those curious about the post Donna mentioned, it's mine--and the very one I linked to. :D

JoLyn Brown said...

This is great idea. Thanks for the post.