Monday, September 20, 2010

Character Arcs and Disbelief

What I’m reading: Silencing Sam, by Julie Kramer

My current writing obstacle: character arcs. A character has to change over the course of the book. My heroine begins as woman who’s fled her abusive husband, taking their son with her. Her ‘inciting incident’ happened before the book opened, when the husband started beating the son as well, which was her last straw.
Ultimately, she’s going to have to change from being afraid (since her husband might be looking for her) and defensive (because that was her coping mechanism for dealing with him) to self-assured and independent.

Two issues: One stems from the abbreviated timeframe of writing a romantic suspense. Things happen quickly. The author has to be able to convince the reader to suspend disbelief that a romantic relationship, complete with the requisite HEA will take place between Page 1 and The End. In order to keep the tension and suspense moving, things unfold over relatively short periods of time.

The second is making the character change believable as well. My heroine’s reactions to the hero will start with her not wanting anything to do with him. By the end of the book, she has to be in love with him. Her situation isn’t exactly conducive to allowing a man into her life. So, as I write, I need to show the gradual change. Sure, she can find him attractive from the get-go. She might have been abused, but she’s still aware of a good-looking man.

In the book, she’s not only running away, she’s supposed to be dead (helped by the good people of Blackthorne, Inc., of course), and she’s got a totally new identity. So, as the character grows, she goes from being the old Julie Ann to Elizabeth.

In my notes, I’ve listed some of the important obstacles she’ll need to overcome—kind of like the 12 Steps to Intimacy. Will she look at him? Talk to him? When she does talk to him, is she comfortable? What’s her reaction if he touches her? Does she flinch? Pull away? When will she allow his touch? When will she enjoy it? How will she be reconciling her head, her heart, and her ingrained conditioned responses to the kind of man her husband was?

And, of course, there are the usual romance conventions: the first kiss, the lovemaking. In reality, it’s doubtful a woman would be able to move through the emotional upheaval as quickly as she’ll have to in the compressed time of a romantic suspense, but it’s the author’s job to convince the reader that in this case, it would work.

Right now, I have her responses being inconsistent. She’s aware that she needs to be Elizabeth, and sometimes she’s successful at forgetting she was Julie Ann. Other times, her former conditioning intervenes. I’m hoping that by showing readers it’s not a magical transformation, that she doesn’t cross an invisible line and everything is all sunshine and light from that point forward, will help bring readers into the suspension of disbelief zone.

What about you? What does it take to get you to suspend the necessary disbelief with regard to “book time” vs. “real time”, both in plot and character development? Has television, with it’s wrap-up of a story in under 45 minutes made it easier to accept how quickly things happen in books?

What else is going on? On Thursday, Hubster and I will be leaving in the very wee hours (6:40 am flight) for Greensboro for the Writers' Police Academy, put together by Lee Lofland whose blog, The Graveyard Shift, is an invaluable resource for anyone writing about any aspects of crime and law enforcement.

And shortly after we get back, I’ll be heading to Seattle for the Emerald City Writers Conference. You can be sure I’ll be posting recaps, but it’ll take a while for me to get them written and posted.

I hope to keep the blog up and running, although I might not be able to respond to comments in a timely fashion. I hope that doesn’t stop you from stopping by. I’ll have my usual Tuesday guests and Friday Field Trips.

Tomorrow, my guest, Jim Ingraham, will be talking about a recent trip to Alaska, and how travel can influence writing.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I like that you've made a list of the obstacles that the character is going to face--that sounds like a great way to make sure that we prevent any reader disbelief by addressing all the potential issues!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Elizabeth - I sort of got the idea from what Harrison Ford said when he was filming "Regarding Henry" - since they film out of order, he did his research and made notes about what stage of recovery the character would be in for each scene. I don't write out of order, but the basic premise is there.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

The list is a very helpful idea. This theme is a touchy one and it is important that it not be shown as too quick and easy. Many who read this may have been there to some extent and will be looking for hope though they may not even be aware they are.

Terry Odell said...

Mary - I totally agree. When I was writing What's in a Name? my daughter and one of her friends were visiting and they read the opening scenes. Her friend offered some excellent suggestions for how Kelli would react when Blake came to the door--although Kelli wasn't an abused woman, I made some modifications for her being a "wary" woman, and stored away the advice for a future date--you never know when something will come in handy.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Terry: Great post here. Actually, most of what you said would apply to any genre, because the characters have to change. You've broken it down succinctly. Thanks for sharing.

Terry Odell said...

Joyce - most definitely. Very few books can make it on plot alone. Static characters are boring, boring, boring. You might have more "time" in other genres, but there has to be change.

C. C. Harrison said...

Book time - good topic, Terry.

Yes, book time is something I'm very aware of when I'm writing, but not so much when I'm reading EXCEPT WHEN I'M READING ROMANCE OR ROMANTIC SUSPENSE. Then I have a lot of trouble with characters who hate each other then suddenly love each other. There has to be a darn good reason why she loves him after hating him, and I mean something other than a good sex scene. He has to do something really extraordinary or I don't believe it as a reader.

Otherwise, when I'm reading I pretty much go with the flow of the story without noticing the book time passing unless it's called to my attention by the author. To be honest, the quick 45 minute solution to most television series is why I don't watch much television. When I do watch a series, it's usually one that continues the story from week to week, like "Persons Unknown" or "Damages" or "Rubicon" or "The Tudors."

Regarding book time when writing - One of the reasons I'm so aware of this when writing is that some time ago I had a previous agent tell me that the "time tags" I used, you know those lines at the beginning of chapters giving the date or day of that chapter's events, was too distracting. I had to change it and incorporate the book time passing in the text.

Later, in another manuscript, I had an editor tell me that my book time passing references within the text was a bad habit. So I truly struggle with that in all my WIPs.

Carol Kilgore said...

The list is a great idea. Since she's already in the process of becoming Elizabeth, that makes it somewhat easier, too, because she knows where she needs to be. Learning to trust again is always difficult - maybe it comes about because of something he does that seems inconsequential to him yet is hugely important to her. You'll get it done :)

Have fun on your travels.

Joyce Yarrow said...

My 2 cents is that a character like Julie Ann may need to change other patterns in her life before she is ready to change the way she relates to men. If she feels more powerful in the world, for example at work or in the context of a friendship, her self esteem will grow and she will begin to trust her own judgment. My own experience as a writer is that the more you focus on character development, the more your plot develops in an organic and believable way. Thanks, Tery, for sharing your own way of doing this in such a thoughtful way.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'll accept a faster change as long as there is a significant enough incident to promote that quick change. I like the idea of Julie Ann learning to trust, maybe because there comes a moment when she has no other choice.

It sounds like you are putting her into situations to try this out. :-)

Terry Odell said...

CC - I tend to skip over chapter headings so date/time references there are lost on me. But I do like to know WHEN I am when I'm reading.

Carol - yes, definitely. He's done that "this guy is a good man" thing which definitely has her regarding him in a much more trusting light. Although she admits to him it still scares her.

Joyce, by all means. It's all about the characters.

Charmaine - yes, poor Julie Ann/Elizabeth is being forced to deal with a lot!

Mary Ricksen said...

I never looked at it, but you are so right. I had one editor tell me I gave one of my heroines too many obstacles to overcome, huh?
I'm so with you on this.

Terry Odell said...

Mary - thanks. Since I've been pulled away from the WIP lately, these thinks help me get back into the characters.