Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Back on the Blog Chain: How Real Are Your Characters?

It's time once again for another entry in our ever-growing blog chain about writing. The current topic is, "How real are your characters, and how much do you know about them?" Please go here and here to read the previous and next entries in the chain. I also have links to all of the blogs in the sidebar.

Before I start discussing characters, I'd like to discuss briefly the relationship between fiction and reality, as this topic has inspired me to mull about that. We read fiction for various reasons; sometimes we want a mirror of our own reality, and sometimes we want to escape from it. (I've lived in Midwestern suburbs for most of my life, and although the Midwest is my home, there are times when it's so mundane I need to escape from it mentally. That's one of several reasons why I love science fiction and fantasy.) But when we read or watch movies or TV, we want to believe in them, at least as long as we're actively engaged in them. So perhaps it's more important to find out what makes readers believe in the reality of characters. Since writers generally start off as readers, and since both writer and reader are needed to bring a story to life, I'll talk first about the writing side of the equation before going into the readers' perspective.

As Heather pointed out in her own entry on this topic, writers almost always feel their characters are real to them; otherwise, the writers wouldn't feel inspired to write about the particular characters in the first place. I haven't tried to obtain Social Security numbers for my characters and claim them as dependents on my taxes, but they still feel like real people to me, perhaps citizens of the universe next door. My characters have strengths and weaknesses, like anyone you meet on the street. They have their own dreams and interests, even ones not relevant to the story. I also have a fairly good idea of what happens to them before and after the beginning of the book.

As for how much I know about my characters, it changes over time. Although I do get to know my characters in my head before I start writing, I generally don't write out a full-blown character sketch for them before my first draft. Even if I do try to create a mini-biography of the main character, it's often incomplete on paper, as I hold more details in my head. Other things come to me as I write. For instance, I have two incomplete trilogies, one fantasy and one science fiction. In both series, after I finished the first book, a secondary character who already had a love interest "told" me that he or she was bisexual and in love with the main character as well. Talk about a plot twist! I worked that into my fantasy series, but I'm still not sure how I want to handle it with the science fiction series.

Although at times my characters will rebel as described above, at other times, I'll come up with a plot twist that feels right for them. I can change the details from draft to draft, but the end result stays the same. In Across Two Universes, Paul's mother is murdered at the beginning of the story, though I've changed how and where it happens. But I could not start afresh and save her; that would be a different book. I do other cruel things to him in the sequel, enough for me to shed real tears over him. Paul may not be a real person, but he inspires real emotions in me.

This brings me to my final point: no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. (Edit: this line isn't from me; it's from Robert Frost. I should have Googled first before quoting.) How do we convince our readers that our characters are real? I think part of it has to do with the telling detail, using all of the senses to bring the world to life. Small details about the characters, like quirks or favorite things, can also make them seem real. But for me, what gets me involved with my characters is their emotional lives, and those need to be portrayed realistically as well. If you can convince your readers that yes, someone would really react a certain way in a given situation, then they too will start thinking of your characters as real.


Kate Karyus Quinn said...

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."

What a great insight! It also reminds me of the beginning of Romancing the Stone when Kathleen Turner's character is writing the end of her novel and sobbing the entire time.

Great post!

Sandra said...

Too bad I can't take credit for the line. ;) I've heard it before, but I didn't know the source until I checked online.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I love the part about not obtaining SSN's for your characters! That was brilliant. And funny. But we really do think of them like that, don't we? I know I do. I fully expect to see one of my characters walking down the street one day. Sometimes when I see people who look like them, I have to stop and stare for a second.

I also loved the quote. That is the kind of emotion we want to evoke in our readers. Great job, Sandra!

Archetype said...

Great post! NOW I know why I write sf/f -- I live in the Midwest! ;-) (I'm actually being serious here. Well, mostly.)

I enjoyed the story about the character who came out as bisexual. I love when characters throw me curveballs like that, even if I'm flabbergasted at first...

Abi said...

Great job! I'm feeling intimidated for my turn in the Chain Gang.


Anonymous said...

I don't do full-blown character sketches either when I write. I write the story down, my characters tell me about themselves as the plot moves forward, and then in the rewrite, I have to work all of the things I learn into the MS to keep the character consistent.

celticqueen said...

excellent post! And I also really loved that quote. My husband will often look at me in total confusion when I am upset over the fate of one of my characters. He says, if it upsets me, don't do it. Well, that's not really how it works :) And, I've gotta say, I love it when someone reads my book and then emails me in the middle of reading it to freak out over something that has happened. It is such a feeling of accomplishment to know you were able to create a character real enough to affect your reader they way they affect you :)

Mary Lindsey said...

Absolutely love you last paragraph. Well said! Thanks for sharing.

H. L. Dyer said...

*snort* claim your characters on your taxes.

You are so funny. And insightful.

Great post!!

Sarah Jensen said...

that was great!So far I've written a lot of me into my characters. Maybe that's therapy.
Yeah, I've had stories change completely because the characters knew what I didn't.

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