Wednesday, March 04, 2009

SleuthFest Followup - Characters

What I'm reading: Sudden Prey, by John Sandford

Continuing my SleuthFest recap:

This year, the conference expanded from a strictly panel format to include a workshop track, where a single presenter addressed a specific topic. S.J. Rozan spoke about characters, and since for me, what's a book without characters you care about, it was my choice for that slot.

She began by pointing out that of all the creative media, writers deal with content, not impressions. She lives in New York, and was (like most of us, but perhaps more so because of it) impacted by 9-11. Whereas an artist can paint or a musician can compose a piece of music to explore their emotions, writers have to tell a story.

Writing, she went on to say, opens a portal between the conscious and subconscious minds. Characters are a part of the author; they're bits and pieces of the author's subconscious peeking through. And, she made clear that characterization is not character. It's not a description of his wavy brown hair, his muscular physique, his size twelve shoes. It's not what the character does, it's why he does it. Character is revealed in a character's actions, behavior, activity and dialogue.

For example:

Keep Reading...
You're driving down the road. You see an accident. There's an unconscious man lying next to his car. Other cars speed on by. One stops. A man gets out and rushes to the victim, kneeling beside him. What's your impression of his character? He's offering first aid, so he's a good person, right? But what if he takes the man's wallet and then walks away?

She used another example that's been used at so many conference workshops: The DaVinci Code, one of the few books where plot was more important than character. In that book many of the characters were cartoons, but the leads were cardboard. Why? Because there was no internal conflict. A character must want something, however trivial, on every page. She asked us whether we're ever completely content, and if so, for how long?

After that, she put us to work. We were given four minutes to write a description of a room using all five senses, from a specific character's POV. (Why don't pens come with cut and paste?) After that, we had another four minutes to write the same character, same room, but this time the character was going to steal something. The last exercise was the same, but this time, the character had just said good-bye to someone he or she loved.

Much as I dread having to create at someone's command, the exercises do help to remind us that when we're writing, it's vital to make sure it's our character on the page, and that we remain in the background.


Ray said...

For me it is impossible for an author to be completely in the background if I have read more than a few of the author's books. Aspects of the author's personality come through. Read enough and you see the likes and dislikes and even belief systems. It doesn't matter if the writer's personality is as cloaked as a stealth fighter, who the author is comes out over the long haul.


Terry Odell said...

Interesting comment, Ray. I don't think an author's 'personality' is the issue -- there's something of every author in every character. But one has to believe in the character in a book, and having the author intrude --not with his/her beliefs, etc.--but with his/her word choices -- can pull a reader right out of the story.

If a character is a cowboy, the author need not be a cowboy to write about him. But if that character uses, let's say, knitting metaphors, in his speech or thoughts, then it's a definite speed bump for the reader. I think that was more what I was trying to get across.

The book has to sound like the character is talking, and thinking, and not like the author is. In a well-written book, you don't notice the author, because you have 100% faith that the character is doing everything 'in character'.

Think actors -- if you see Harrison Ford instead of Indiana Jones, then he's not doing his job.

Ray said...

I won't argue with what you said. I just meant that one author in particular writes excellent novels that put me inside the heads of the characters, but over the years certain themes recur often enough that I know they are ideas the author wants to explore as much as the reader. I think that is why I said that aspects of the author's personality come through and not the personality.

To me reading is definitely not a passive activity. When I am really into a book I analyze myself as much as the character who is speaking to me.