Monday, April 28, 2008

An Outing, and a Conundrum

I had lunch and went shopping with a writer friend today--something I don't usually get to do. That was fun. While we had lunch, though, we talked about what makes a main character appealing to us. Oddly enough, I have an easier time writing my male characters than writing my female characters. I'm not sure why. But one thing I want to see in a protagonist of either sex is strength. Not perfection or even the illusion of perfection, but strength of character, inner fortitude, determination, and a strong sense of self. I'm not big on whiny characters, characters with huge chips on their shoulders, or self-absorbed, shallow characters. If I think a character is pathetic or any class of a wimp, I won't like her enough to care about her. I want to be able to admire my character, even while I'm watching what she's going through and feeling really glad not to be in her shoes. So why do I have trouble writing female characters who embody all the things I admire and who I'd be proud to have a conversation with? Sometimes, despite multiple rewrites, my heroines fail to win the sympathy of my crit group in the beginning of the book, and that could potentially be a fatal flaw. I can't afford fatal flaws--not at this stage of the game, and not ever from here on out.

Now, here's the confusing part. I'm drawn to strong characters, so in the opening of my second Brenna book, I had written her as coming across strong and confident, especially given the life-changing events of the first book. The main gripe one of my crit partners had was that Brenna seemed a little too flip, and not quite vulnerable enough. Granted, she's just been through quite a lot at the end of From the Ninth Wave, so she probably should be a little more vulnerable there than I'd portrayed her, but.... Now I need to go back and see whether I can strike a different balance--or perhaps see whether that opening even works at all. I thought it did, but maybe it didn't. I don't know.

I was still puzzling over it after I took my friend home, so I went to the bookstore and found a book on characters, and one specifically on hooking readers at the beginning of the book. Now it's study time, on top of the other research I was doing for the next Brenna book. If Brenna can't win friends and influence people, I'm sunk. On the other hand, I could just be overthinking things again. But either way, it can't hurt for me to brush up my opening gambits and character intros.

Note for any beginning writers: no matter how many years you work in this field, you never stop learning the craft. The moment you're convinced that you have no need to improve and you know it all is the moment you should throw away your keyboard. This is a craft that keeps shifting and evolving as times and tastes change, so no writer has an excuse to stagnate. And yet, these "new" techniques are as old as the very first fireside storytellers. It's all in continually learning--or perhaps rediscovering--the techniques that bring your worlds and characters to robust and compelling life.


Adrian Swift said...

Well said! It's an interesting circumstance you find yourself in. It occurred to me that one way to help develop characters is to base them on real-life individuals. I don't mean actually depicting a real person in your fiction, of course, but borrowing from a real person some sense of their personality or strength of character, etc., and building your own character around that, or simply anchoring the fictional character by using a part of a real person where it aligns with the effect you're trying to achieve.

I have learned to think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, where the weaknesses are an area for learning. The character must learn something and use it to overcome the weakness in order to go on to use the strengths in the final confrontation. Hence, the weakness contributes to the development of the theme, or the lesson learned for the reader. By having a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses, it is possible to depict the character first using a strength, but then go on to hint at and develop the sense of the weakness. By the mid-point of the story the weaknesses should be quite clear.

If it helps any, you can check out the fantasy fiction guide I created, which deals more with this. It's not in-depth as a good writing book would be, but it puts things in a concise form and is useful, with lots of good links.

Best wishes, and I'm also still learning, every day, every time I sit down to write! What you said certainly rings true with me.



KHurley said...

Thanks, and best of luck to you, too. I'll definitely check out your guide. The books I bought are called "Hooked" by Les Edgerton and "Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress. I haven't started the second one yet but I'm really enjoying the first one. Edgerton has a great way of explaining how the opening is supposed to work, exactly what the inciting incident is supposed to achieve, etc. I've read about these before, but his explanations just seem to click better for me than any I've read previously.

Adrian Swift said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adrian Swift said...

Those books sound great. I'll look for them when I'm next in a bookstore.

Sorry, messed up the link. It should have been this:

That's my "launch page". It has a direct link to the fantasy fiction guide (and my blogs, etc.).

Another great source of inpsiration and how-to insights for me has been Alicia Rasley's site. She writes Romance novels, but her site provides many free articles about novel writing that are applicable across genres. They are truly excellent, brief and clear. They have had a significant impact in helping me target specific aspects of my writing for improvement. In particular, she talks about the very topics you mention. Her explanations made such great sense for me, as Edgerton's book is doing for you.

I should have a link to Alicia Rasley's site on the links page at my fantasy writing guide.

PS -- I sent this comment once already and Blogger truncated the link. I deleted it and will try sending it again!