Some of you asked questions about characterization at the end of April, and I’m going to try to answer a few today. Here goes.
If you are writing in multi POV, and one of your POV characters is the antagonist, are there tricks to really inhabit the more unsavory characters and ‘love’ them as much as the protagonists?
I think I learned this trick from Donald Maass, but I’m too lazy to get up and check my shelf to be sure. Here’s the trick: You should try to give every antagonist at least one likeable and/or relatable quality. A serial killer who loves his little dog, who maybe dresses it in sweaters to keep it from getting cold in the winter months. A mother who beats her teenaged son but who always covers the huge scar on her arm from where her own father burned her repeatedly with cigarettes. A kidnapper who plays music for his victims, makes sure their meals are hot. A person who cheats her employees out of their fair tips, but who plays Candy Land with her kids every evening.
More broadly, I think the key to writing a bad guy is to play against expectations. Don’t do the black-and-white Hollywood thing. Make him or her human. Find the good stuff and play it up, because the contrast is compelling and curious to readers. And then when you inhabit that person, sink into those human aspects.
I don’t know whether you read through the Brunonia Barry interview, but she spoke about inhabiting her characters in nearly a literal way, through method acting–trying to be that person for a while. You might learn a lot about them that way.
I’d appreciate it if someone could talk about not loving characters too much to the point where they take up more space in a book than you want them to (not just secondary characters, but antagonists and protags too). Coming up with complex characters isn’t too hard, but keeping them in check is a balancing act.
I wonder if every writer has at least one character per book who wants to take up more white space than s/he should? I’d love to hear from others on this one, but here’s what I do: I let them blab. Sometimes they just need to get it out of their system, tell their story, you know? I open a fresh Word doc and just say, “Okay, tell me what’s on your mind.” And they do. Sometimes there’s a scene fragment in the outpouring, but often that’s not the case and I just file everything away. It seems to make the character happy just to have been heard. I guess they’re like real people in that regard.
I’d like some pointers about characterization within your ‘hook’ – those pages you’re sending off to an agent or editor – say, when you’ve got a character who needs to grow because he’s sort of unlikeable or you want him to appear villainous at first.
You might be able to create an intriguing hint that your character isn’t all he appears. Let’s go to the movies for a second and consider Rocky Balboa. Here’s a guy who, at the start of the film, is working for a loan shark. His task? Break fingers when people don’t pay up. Thing is, he doesn’t actually break fingers as often as he warns people that he will break fingers if they don’t cough up the money—next time. On the way home from being reamed out by his boss, he tries to set a young girl straight after witnessing her with a bunch of bad boys. Because what we know of him—works for loan shark, breaks fingers—and what we see—compassion—are in conflict with one another, some page-turning story questions are born: What’s this guy all about? Who is he, really? What does he want? (The loan shark was interesting, too, remember? He gave Rocky some money for his first date with Adrian.)
Another possibility is to use additional characters–people who know your darkish protagonist well–to help inform his character. I’m thinking now of Pride & Prejudice and Mr. Darcy. Here’s a guy who was rude and uncharismatic at the start, but best friends with one of the nicest guys around–Mr. Bingley. Again, there’s some conflict between what we’ve seen and what we know. So what’s the truth? Story questions. We turn to page to learn more about the incongruous Mr. Darcy.
All that said, I don’t know that it’s always critical to hint within the first few pages that your dark characters are more than they appear. But it’s something we’d expect to see as the story progresses.
More answers coming soon. Readers, if you have different opinions on the comments above, please speak up. And feel free to ask any new questions, too. Less than two weeks left of characterization month. (Is time flying?)
Write on, all!