Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Larger Than Life

Anyone who has ever taken a Breakout Novel Workshop from Don Maass will be familiar with the concept of the larger-than-life character. But I'm sure that most writers have had a character who just gives them fits. No matter how hard the writer tries to get that character to be the hero or heroine that the audience needs, the character just won't play. Now, I've tried all the techniques that Don presents in his workshops for character building, and if you want to try any of them you'll have to go take one of his classes or get one of his books. I'm not allowed to reproduce any of his techniques here. I'm fiercely protective of intellectual property--I have to be if I want to play in the big Professional Writer sandbox. But while I was working on one of my stubborn characters, I came up with a diagnostic technique that is all my own. What's more, I'm going to offer it here for free. I have no idea whether it will help anyone, but it certainly can't hurt. Here it is:

Pen or print out a passage or even several pages--heck, take the entire first scene--written from your hard-to-pin-down character's POV. (That's point-of-view, for those of you who are brand spankin' new writers.) Then highlight all the parts that show that character's emotions, and write the name of each emotion down on another piece of paper. Now read your list. Does it read, "Hope, curiosity, determination, excitement..." or does it read more like "anger, disappointment, desperation, misery, anger, irritation, boredom, anger, anger, anger, hopelessness...?" Sometimes your character's attitude can be a very good clue as to whether a reader will like him or her. People have a hard time rooting for a person who is always negative. Do you like to hang out with people who are always whiny, grumpy or negative? Probably not. So why should a reader want to hang out with a character who is a whiner, grump or defeatest?

That brings on another subject--the hero that no one really likes, but who is nonetheless the protagonist of the story. It's hard to say how to handle this one. I don't really like antiheros, personally. But I can possibly get behind one if I can identify sufficiently with one of the secondary characters. For example, I don't really like Rand al'Thor in the Wheel of Time series, but I do like many of his friends and allies. Don't get me wrong--I wouldn't call him an antihero, but I just have never been able to identify with him all that much. And maybe that's fine. Maybe he's meant to be the tragic hero figure who is pretty much distanced from everyone by the destiny that he never wanted. Sad, but necessary. If I can't like Rand, maybe I can identify with the Elayne character, or the Perrin character, or Lan Mandragoran. Do you have a secondary character through whose eyes the reader can view the protagonist? A Watson for your Holmes? In Anne Bishop's Black Jewels series, I'm not all that gone on Jaenelle, the main character. Maybe that's because we never ever get to be in her POV. I can empathize with her plight, but I can't really identify with her. But I absolutely, completely love Daemon and want him to be happy. And what makes Daemon happy? Jaenelle, of course. So there you go.

Now, check out your villain's attitude. People often stereotype a villain as someone who hates life A happy villian cuts an entirely different figure than a villian who is hunched and miserable. Which one do you want to use, and what attitudes would be out of character for that particular villian? This will have an effect on how the reader will perceive the character. It's all about 'tude.

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