My guest today is author Ellis Carrington, who's telling us about the importance of loving your characters.
I recently acquired a fabulous audio book called Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. I love it for two reasons: The first is that the author’s soothing voice never fails to lull my kids to sleep at naptime, but also it has a TON of fabulous principles that can be applied equally well to those of us who write books as well as screenplays.
One of those principles has to do with the importance of a writer loving their characters. Makes sense, right? He points out that sometimes you can really tell that a writer hated a particular character when they write it, and that’s no good. “Absolutely,” I murmured, as my head bounced in agreement like one of those bobble-head dolls. “Why would you write a character you don’t like?”
And then one day I am reading critique notes from a fellow writer on a novel I had written. “Your protagonist is dull,” he tells me. WHAT?? Why I never… Oh, but wait a minute. He’s right. All along I had known that there was a little something missing from the character and I couldn’t put my finger on what, but that was it: I didn’t like him.
OMG!! How did I not realize that??? And as Robert McKee said, why did I create him if I didn’t? Well I think the answer lies in the big mistake that a lot of rookie writers make. I created a character in my own image. Not entirely, of course (he’s a vampire for crying out loud, whereas I routinely enjoy sunlight), but many of the things I didn’t like about him were things I didn’t like about myself and I wasn’t really giving him the respect of his own personality. Moreover, I felt pity toward the guy. So I wasn’t willing to torture him sufficiently to give her story the tension it needed.
So I’d like to build on McKee’s theory. You don’t just need love, you need really tough love. When you think about it, it’s not much different than parenting sometimes. You love your kids to pieces, but in order to grow there are certain experiences that they have to suffer through. You can’t save them from their first heartbreak, or their first time losing a game. They need those aches to learn and to grow. Shielding them from the agony does them more harm than good.
I had heard of character torture before, but I didn’t really understand until recently that the torture and the love are really almost two sides of the same coin for a fictional character.
Take Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. I’m sure she’s fond of all her characters, but I would hazard a guess that Lulu is one of her favorites. She is so energetic and colorful, and I don’t just mean because of her foul language. Lulu always makes me laugh, but that poor prostitute-turned-file clerk had to go through Hell and back to become who she is.
Erotica writer Emma Holly recently posted on her FaceBook page that she’d fallen in love with her villain. I have the feeling it’ll be the best villain ever. That’s right, folks. Your villains need love too. They’re not really bad guys, they’re characters that are doing the best they can with the lot they’ve been given. I can respect that, can’t you?
I’m still getting a feel for it, but I finally realized that it’s how you create a character that people can relate to. You need to love and honor those characters – really love them. Hug them, cuddle them, put them on a pedestal to be admired and revered. Then chuck rocks and sharp things at them until they bleed. Then hug them some more. Make them confront the worst of themselves, and let them know you’ll love them all the more for it.
If you’ve got one of those characters that just seems…a little like they’re missing something, somehow? Ask yourself if you love them enough to torture them a little more? Don’t just focus on their GMC, but zero in on what you really love and admire about those goals and motivation.
I bet it’ll make a big difference. I know it has for me.
Ellis Carrington writes contemporary and erotic M/M romance. Find out more about her at her blog (http://elliscarrington.wordpress.com/) or check out her latest story in the recently published Touchdowns anthology.