Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Writer Wednesday - Bonding with your Characters

We all love to read books where we bond with the characters. Where we don't want the story to end, because the characters are so wonderful. I've watched The Princess Bride dozens of time because I loved the character Inigo Montoya. He stole the show from the Dread Pirate Wesley. Fezzik was great as well, and together, they just made the best duo. I didn't want the story to end. So I bought the novel, which was even better--and funnier!--than the movie. I've owned two copies of that novel and have read it multiple times.

Another character that I absolutely loved was Paksenarrion from The Deed of Paksenarrion. Paks had some interesting flaws. She was sometimes slow-witted, and she was completely asexual. But she was also completely likable. Elizabeth Moon put the reader so firmly in the character's head that before the end of the trilogy, you may be shedding tears over her.

But how do we, as writers, establish such lovable characters? I'm not sure I know the answer, but it makes sense to me that first, we must love our characters, ourselves. One thing I do to bond with my characters is write scenes that enable me to get to know my own characters. I consider these scenes disposable. I call them pilot scenes because they work like a pilot chute. A pilot chute is a tiny parachute that draws out the big parachute. A pilot scene draws out the larger story.

Here is a pilot scene for my WIP, which is a time travel historical. In this scene, the character--Mike--is walking around town, getting to know the 1920s. Ashley is his sister. They are from the present day.

Passing gentlemen tipped their hats--whatever they had, be it old derbies, cowboy hats or fedoras. They eyed him as they said good morning, and his hatless head started to feel naked. When he saw an store ahead of him, he decided to go in. The name of the store, F. W. Woolworth Co., looked familiar.

He found himself something that looked like a drug store. He wandered up and down aisles, his eyes leaping with fascination from one object to another. Toward the back of the store, he found inexpensive men's clothing. He picked out a fedora, took it to the counter, and paid for it. It was $3.50.

He settled it on its head as he walked out the door, as he had seen men do, and he resumed his stroll. He started wandering up and down random streets. It was impossible to get lost for long. Too far north, and you hit the trolley line. Too far south, and you reached a golf course. Too far east and west, you hit water. He wandered for hours, taking it all in, wondering if Ashley would worry, and smiling when the thought hit him that she would have surely called his cell phone by now.

Her company was never onerous, but he had not felt so free since he was a boy.
Not a lot of action, just introspection. I'm not sure if I'll keep it but for now, it's still in my manuscript.

How do you establish a bond with your characters? Please share in the comments. Please keep any excerpts to 300 words or fewer.

42 comments:

Chicory said...

Hi Tia! That's a great topic. I bond with my characters by having them get into conversation with someone. I could fill out character sheets until the cows come home, but until they open their mouths, I have a hard time really grasping them.

On a side note, Inigo Montoya is awesome, especially in the book where we get his back story, and you really see his relationship with his father.

Tia Nevitt said...

Oh, great point! Conversations are a wonderful way to get to know your characters.

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Agree with Chicory. Even during dialogue though I always try and hold back from the reader exactly what my characters are thinking. I try and let their mannerisms and/or non-introspective thoughts convey who they are. As a reader, I feel that making the slight logical jump between what a character is experiencing physically and feeling emotionally not only draws me into the story more, but makes my relationship to the character all that much more personal and, consequently, pleasurable. I try and use this carefully as asking the reader to fill in too many logical gaps will make reading feel like a chore.

"Z had a frightening premonition, was terrified, and ran home as quickly as possible". This would turn into something like:
"The feeling crashed over her like a frozen wave. Z's hand jumped to her heart, feeling its suddenly wild rhythm through the thick sweater. It could mean only one thing. The sound of her running echoed through the night and quickly matched that of her pounding heart as she raced home to confront her worst fear. Let me make it in time, she thought, blinking away tears that distorted the road ahead. A little latter, hair wild and breathing heavily from the mad run, the same thought repeated itself compulsively in her head, now reduced to a single word,time. Her hand, remarkably, did not shake as she grasped the door handle, turned it, and entered."

I always find that if I can't picture how my character will react to something physically, even if its only a slightly raised eyebrow for example, then I don't know what they are feeling. So yea, I work on the physicality of my characters to given them life and reserve the introspection for moments of revelatory importance. Sorry if I rambled a bit...

Kimber An said...

"'Ello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You kill my father. Prepare to die."

"Stop saying that!"

"'Ello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You kill my father! Prepare to die!"

Yep, we got it on DVD. Typically, I fast forward through all the parts except Inigo Montoya's, although I love one of Wesley's last lines. "Wrong! To the pain, Highness, means I leave you in anguish, wallowing if freakish misery forever!"

Tia Nevitt said...

OnlyTheBest, your approach seems similar to mine. The tone of the book determines whether my scene will be action-packed or not. All of my novels to date have been very different.

Kimber, I think that movie is just packed with great characters, most of them not the male and female leads.

A. Grey said...

Long live Fezzik! I have both the book and movie pretty much memorized. Theme of my life! :)

Hmm Tia, I'm thinking about the excerpt you posted. I don't find myself emotionally attached to Mike by the end. I have a feeling OF him, but not FOR him. Does that make sense? I see what he's doing, but I don't know how he feels about what he's doing. I mean, I do want to read on and see what happens though. Funnily enough, the woman who owns the estate on which I work is the great great (or some such derivative) granddaughter of one of the founders of Woolworth's

Here's an excerpt from my main squeeze WIP, an epic fantasy. This occurs within the first ten pages, and involves the lead character, nicknamed Pony, and a man who goes on to become her friend, named Ruger.

***
Ruger hadn’t known that the fellow he was following wasn’t a fellow at all. Not until his untidy assault caused the boy’s cap to fall off, freeing a hip-length braid of russet hair. It was a girl. A very strong girl, but just a girl. A girl who would, like most girls, probably cry before all was said and done.
“I wasn’t going to hurt you.” He said immediately, his demeanor somewhere between sullen and sheepish.
“Pardon me, I wasn’t aware that the custom of greeting people from the front and been replaced by one of thumping them in the rear!” The girl returned sharply.
Pony faced the man squarely, feet apart, knife still at the ready. She braced her hands on her hips, angry despite her usually gentle nature. He was huge in height and breadth, and could overtake her regardless of her ill temper, but she didn’t intend to submit easily.
“I just wanted some food.” He offered, as if to justify his actions.
“And you thought I’d give it to you more readily after you’d thrashed me around a bit?” Pony didn’t trust his intentions. Turning her head slightly, she let out a sharp, shrill whistle.
“If you let me have whatever food you’ve got I’ll go.” Ruger startled warily when she whistled, but persisted in his venture, edging closer hungrily.
“Sit down over there and you can have it all.” Pony motioned, eyeing his handsome, not entirely threatening features. “Though I don’t have much to start with.”

***

Do you like the two?

A. Grey said...

Oh, by the way OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy. I like that except for the 'crashed over her like a frozen wave' part. The first vision that popped into my head was of a giant ice shelf splattering her, like a calving glacier. Maybe if it were something like "The feeling swept over her with the numbing chill of an arctic wave." or something along those lines.

Tia Nevitt said...

Hmm. Maybe I should have been more specific. This was not a scene that introduces Mike. He is introduced--along with Ashley--during dialog scenes (interestingly enough) in the beginning of the book. This was just a scene to help ME bond with my character. I realized that I needed to spend a few minutes alone with each character, since up to this point, they were always together. I kept it to 300 words or less, but it is actually longer.

Will comment on your excerpt in a separate comment.

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

@ Grey

Thanks for the compliment, and I enjoyed your paragraph as well.

Mine isn't from anything I have written previously, it was just off the cuff. Heh yea, I get the same ice shelf picture. On editing I would definitely go with something like you wrote--maybe metaphor it up and tease out the contrast between hot and cold to infer sudden shock.

A. Grey said...

Ah. Well, perhaps I ought to have read your post more carefully. 'Duh' moment for me. I think my mind was thinking faster than processing... I see exactly what you mean, and your excerpt makes it clear. I apologize.

I should say, then, that my characters usually endear themselves to me by way of their interaction with my other characters. Like the way your friends move and interact with each other while with you but not necessarily involving you directly.

A. Grey said...

*Sigh* It's been one of 'those days' all week so far. Tia, my last comment was directed at you, but I failed to state that.
OnlyTheBest, thank you, and not bad at all for off the cuff! I was ready to read on...

Tia Nevitt said...

No prob, Grey!

I just used the "dialog method" to come up with a great villain! Thanks OnlyTheBest! It's in my notebook, or I'd post it. Maybe I'll post it tonight.

Grey, I'll have to wait until I get home before I comment on your excerpt. Busy day at work!

Memory said...

I'm like both Chicory and OnlyTheBest; I form a connection with my characters by writing (or imagining) conversations and by envisioning their physical reactions to certain situations. And, like A.Grey, I like the moment where two people come together for the first time. There's so much possibility there.

I also spend an awful lot of time thinking about who they are and what makes them tick. I've got a whole file full of tidbit scenes that I wrote solely so I could play around with voice and personality and niggly little worldbuilding things. Here's one of 'em:

So there we were, standing in this crap room in the damned basement, and all I could think was that he was doing this for me – well, me and Sim, who I really wasn’t thinking about right now, thanks – and I felt so rotten over it I could’ve just sunk straight into the roots.

I’m gonna ask you to picture what it was like for Warath, coming into the temple of Ralkin and Ketria in the middle of the most famous lianen city ever. The guy’s a human. He’s been a merc for more’n half his life. He’s gone and got himself used to hanging around these two scrappy lianen kids, and when they figure on settling down in this hardcore lianen city, he figures he’s gonna follow ‘em. So he gets a gig at the temple. Weaponsmaster. And the priests and the other weaponsmasters are nice to him, don’t think they aren’t, but that don’t stop them from sticking him in just about the worst room in the place. We’re talking dirt caked on everything, more dust than you can shake a stick at, and nothing but one bare lightglobe hanging down from the ceiling. Tenement stuff.

He ain’t gonna admit that it’s a bad situation. That’s not Warath’s scene. He’s just gonna pretend that everything’s brill, ‘cause that’s how he rolls.

Then I come along.

“You gotta ask for something better,” I said.

Warath just grunted.

“Seriously. You can’t just let ‘em stick you down here like this.”

“So it ain’t no palace. It’s a hell of a lot better’n the rest of the rooms down here. I wouldn’t’ve picked it otherwise.”

“You picked this.”

“’S what I said, ain’t it?”

“Sorry, but you’re gonna have to say it again, ‘cause right now I’m thinking you’ve gone starkers.”

Chicory said...

A Gray, I really like your point about characters interacting with others. That's so much more all-encompassing than just zeroing in on dialogue.
To go back to the `Princess Bride' as an example, people can tell early on that Inigo Montoya isn't as hardened as he'd like everyone to think just by the way he interacts with Fezzik -even before the famous duel on the Cliffs of Insanity.

Chicory said...

Sorry. When I said `even before the duel' I MEANT even before he showed himself so honorable by insisting on a fair fight with the Man in Black instead of just dropping a rock on the guy's head and calling it a day.

Chicory said...

Memory, I like your use of slang, like `bril' and `starkers.' It gives a nice sense of voice.

Raven said...

My one problem with "starkers": Isn't it British slang for buck naked?

I tend to bond with my characters by figuring out their backstory, especially the events in their past that have hurt them. My best characters are all emotionally wounded. :)

Memory said...

Eek, I thought starkers meant crazy! Maybe it's one of those bits of dual meaning slang. I'll Google it.

Memory said...

And Raven, I agree with you about emotionally wounded characters. Characters who have to overcome/deal with some past misfortune are so much more interesting to write. (And read!)

Chicory said...

Raven and Memory, yes! The emotionally wounded are so fun. You just want to cuddle them. But my best friend has started asking me when I'm going to write about someone with a NORMAL past...

Memory said...

Characters with normal pasts are highly overrated. :)

Raven said...

Agreed. Characters with normal pasts are no fun to write, not to mention they're much harder to write (for me at least). Also, why would anyone want to read about somebody normal?! :)

Tia Nevitt said...

Grey, your POV does some shifting around, making it somewhat difficult to follow. For example, you are in one head here:

Ruger hadn’t known that the fellow he was following wasn’t a fellow at all.

And then jump to the other head here:

He was huge in height and breadth, and could overtake her regardless of her ill temper, but she didn’t intend to submit easily.

And I noticed some sequences out of order. For example, this segment, which I have rearranged:

Pony didn’t trust his intentions.

“And you thought I’d give it to you more readily after you’d thrashed me around a bit?” Turning her head, she let out a sharp, shrill whistle.

Ruger startled when she whistled, but persisted in his venture, edging closer.

“If you let me have whatever food you’ve got I’ll go.”

Also, I think both you and OnlyTheBest would benefit from a ruthless elimination of adverbs. I trimmed them in the above excerpt. They can be very powerful, but only when you almost never use them. Think of them like pepper--a little goes a long way.

As for your question, Pony has a lot of spunk, but I didn't really form an opinion of Ruger, yet. He seems mostly harmless.

Tia Nevitt said...

And I ask you, what is normal? I'd say that my characters aren't particularly emotionally wounded, but I'd be wrong. Mike and Ashley are twins, and they have only each other in the world, having lost their parents before they were 25, and with no other close relations.

Memory, I knew what you meant by starkers; I thought of it as crazy by the context. And I liked it. The voice was very chatty, speaking directly to the reader, which may not resound with all readers. I got dinged by an agent because my voice in Starcaster was too chatty with too much -- as she put it -- authorial intrusion. Your excerpt worked for me, but it may not work for everyone.

Raven said...

For the record, I loved the chatty voice in Memory's excerpt, with just that one exception at the end. I think a voice like that is a great way to establish character.

Narrative voice would be a cool topic for an upcoming Writer Wednesday. How distinctive do you make your voice, and assuming you write multiple works, how do you keep each and every POV character's voice distinct?

Memory said...

Tia, I am a little worried about alienating some readers, since I know many people don't care for more colloquial narrators, but I'm not sure I could work with this character in any other way. I'll be taking a close look at him during my next read-through, though, just in case.

I love Raven's idea of a future Writer Wednesday about voice. It's been a big issue for me, since I have two protagonists in my novel and they both narrate in the first person. I'd love to hear how others approach it.

Chicory said...

Ooh, that would be a great topic!

Chicory said...

Here's a bit from a Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling I was working on awhile ago. (I figured things would be more interesting if the princess and soldier had met when they were kids.) The conversation really helped me get a handle on my lead characters.

"You're a coward."
The boy's mouth twisted, and for a second I thought he wanted to hit me. "I ain't! I'm a soldier."
The boy was no older than I was. His narrow face was streaked with grime. His patched coat hung to his knees and instead of buttons it was laced shut with frayed string. His feet were wrapped in rags. He was like some sort of animal, feral as a stray cat.
"If you're a soldier, why doesn't your uniform fit?"
"'Cause this ain't my uniform. Left it at home so as not to mess it up."
"Why don't you have boots?"
"Gave 'em away. Met this old woman what was hobbling along without no shoes, so I give her mine."
"If you're a soldier, why were you with those unicorn hunters?"
"I ain't. I'm in the woods jawing with an elf" (he spat on the ground and seemed mildly satisfied when I flinched) "what don't think nothing of wearing a king's ransom in diamonds for a shirt."

superwench83 said...

This subject is one reason why I don't outline. I find it so much easier to bond with my characters when I give them free reign and let them reveal themselves to me. My favorite of all my characters was originally intended to be a villain, but once I got into his head and explored his past and his motivations, I realized that he was actually the hero of the book. I never would have discovered him if I'd let myself hold onto my preconceived notions of who he was.

Character conversations and interactions with other characters are helpful to me somewhat, but for me, the real bonding between me and my characters takes place in the dark and secret places of that character's mind.

superwench83 said...

This is the paragraph that made me realize Johann was my book's hero rather than its villain. It was the turning point. I can't say why this particular glimpse inside of his head was such a revelation, but then again, I guess it's the small things that really make a difference sometimes.

***

Hefting the bag over his shoulder, he set out down the road. Shadows darkened around him as the sky turned from gray to navy, and wind clattered through the skeletal trees. He breathed in deep, his lungs feeling chill and fresh, his nose full of the smoky aroma of fall and the hint of frost ahead. He loved this time of year. Most people hated the transition time between autumn and winter. The absence of color, the bareness of the land, and no glittery snow sprinkles and shiny ice to brighten the earth. But most people didn’t know how to see. In the almost night, the silhouettes of the naked trees, unobstructed by the nuisance of leaves, could be observed in all their gracefulness. Black tendrils reaching up to heaven, arm-like limbs outstretched in a silent prayer, those barren trees were the most perfect thing Johann could think of. No more hiding their true selves under a cushion of leaves, the trees bared their bleak souls to the cleansing chill of winter.

Chicory said...

Superwench83: Wow. That's so atmospheric. I can see why you fell in love with Johann. He seems like someone who looks at everything with a poet's eyes.

superwench83 said...

Chicory: Thank you! I just got finished reading your excerpt and really enjoyed it as well. The dialect is perfect. Writing dialect well is a tricky skill!

Tia Nevitt said...

Voice is a great topic idea. We'll do that next week.

Memory, I once wrote a short story all in dialect, from the POV of a colloquial narrator, a la Mark Twain. The story refused to be written any other way. I got some great feedback on it, but I never sold it. Granted, I've only sent it three places, which might be the reason! I tend to not be persistent enough when it comes to my short stories.

Wench, I LOVED your excerpt! That was really some outstanding writing.

Tia Nevitt said...

Ok, here's the villain I created today through OnlyTheBest's dialog method. Mike and Ashley are time travelers from the present day, stuck in the 20s. They're checking out a local speakeasy. And the local gangsters are checking out them.

"So, who's this doll you came in with?"

A frown creased Mike's brow before he could stop it. "My sister."

"Your sister, eh? What's her name?"

Mike met his gaze. "Miss Blaine."

The guy returned his stare, his own eyes blank. With a chill, Mike realized that he was dangerous.

"Grab him," the guy said.

The two goons moved in and pinned Mike's arms behind his back. Twin pains stabbed through his shoulders, and he knew that if he struggled, he'd get one or more dislocated shoulders for his efforts.

The leader moved in close. Mike could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.

"Maybe you don't know who I am since you're new in town. The name's Haley. That's Mr. Haley to you. I run this town. Even Mr. Mayor knows that. Now why don't you tell me--with a civil tone--Miss Blaine's first name?"

After telling himself that Haley could easily find out anyway, Mike said, "Ashley." And he hated himself just the same.

"Now as a result of our little conversation here, Mr. Blaine, I'm going to take some time to get to know the enchanting Ashley Blaine. Intimately well. And if I should ever have reason to talk to you like this again, you will not come out of it looking nearly this good." Haley flicked his cigarette ash into Mike's face. "Oh, and welcome to St. Augustine."

The goons released him. Shaken, Mike watched as they walked back inside, followed by his goons. He massaged his shoulders for a moment, and then he followed them.

("Mr. Mayor" is a placeholder until I determine the mayor's name from that period.)

Memory said...

Chicory, I really like the dialogue you've got going on there. And I think you're right; even in this short little scene, there's an interesting dynamic between the girl and the boy soldier.

superwench83, I'm with Chicory: I love the atmosphere in that paragraph. It took me straight inside Johann's head. I can see why you connected with him.

Tia, I really like how you've handled Haley's dialogue. He's obviously a dangerous guy who holds a grudge, and I sure don't envy Mike in having made an enemy of him.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thank you, Memory! This guy is really going to be a major problem for both of them!

Chicory said...

Tia, I like where Mike answers the question about his sister with 'Miss Blaine,' like he's putting the guy back in place by reminding him of propriety.
The way you leave things hanging here (especially the threat against Ashley) makes me want to know what happens, even though I haven't actually met Ashley yet.

superwench83 said...

Thanks, guys!

Tia, I especially liked the first part of that scene. The understated dialogue made the menace stand out so much more, I think, than something more direct. And then it's followed up by a more tangible threat...quite effective.

Isn't writing villains fun?

Chicory said...

Superwench, thank you. The dialect is sort of borrowed from my grandmother. I like to use it for gritty down-to-earth types in honor of her.

Memory, thanks. I enjoyed the clash of a princess who hasn't really been out of the palace before meeting a kid who has to live by his wits.

Tia Nevitt said...

Chic, a LOT of my novel is borrowed from my own grandmother, who was born in 1895 and was thus a young woman in the 20s.

Thanks everyone! I do love writing villains! My scene does a POV switch at this point to Ashley. I haven't written it yet, but it will be her first meeting of Haley as well.

A. Grey said...

Tia, right on with the elimination of adverbs! They're like commas, I go back and usually (obviously not always) hack most of them out, and spend an hour wondering why the hell I put them in to start with.
I fully intend, when I've got a moment, to pull out my computer and line by line compare my version and your version and get the pruning sheers. I'll have to work on the POV too. The lead character is Pony, but it's vital that her eventual companions have a voice too as much of the story revolves around how they feel about each other, how they perceive each other. It can be done, but it might take a good deal of rewriting. Bring it on!

Thanks for your imput! I can't wait for voice next week. That's a great topic! Oh, by the way, interestingly enough, you're right about Ruger. He's mostly harmless, and at first, he DOESN'T have a huge personality, primarily because he's just used to being whatever 'smarter' higher ranked people tell him he is - big and stupid.

Tia Nevitt said...

Ooh, and I can see his true personality emerging over the course of the story.

I think Voice will be a great topic. I'm going to try to find another featured writer, too.