Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Have You Hugged Your Characters Today?

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.


Kathryn Scannell said...

You know, this puts the finger exactly on what was wrong with my first attempt at a novel (still sitting in a dusty corner of the hard drive). I didn't really care about the MC. I'd already concluded it was crap and put it aside to come back to in a few years, but this gives me another piece of understanding as to *why* it was crap.

Ellis Carrington said...

Thanks Kathryn, I'm so glad you found it helpful!! Maybe you can dust off that manuscript and give your MC another try. :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love even little things that torture a character--the mess surrounding a neat-freak, an annoying and nosy neighbor...it just provides so much tension for the character. :) Nice post, thanks.

Kris Bock said...

I have found that when I get to know a person well -- enough to understand why they are the way they are -- then even people I don't like become sympathetic and, to some extent, lovable, if only because they so desperately need to be loved.

So maybe in fiction it's partly getting to know your characters well enough to truly understand them. If you understand why your villain is so bad -- not something superficial like greed, but the insecurities or fear of poverty that lead to the greed -- surely you'll have a deeper and truer character. If your hero has flaws and quirks, he'll be more relatable and the story will have more depth.

I tend to be good with plot but need to take more time over characters, so this is a good reminder -- Ishouldn't start writing until the characters feel like real people to me.

Ellis Carrington said...

@Elizabeth - you're so right, and those little things so often get forgotten. Thanks for stopping by!!

@Chris - I, too, tend to get caught up in my exciement about what is going to happen in the story that I forget to stop and get to know my heroes! I find when I do that I wind up with very flat protagonists. Josh Lanyon actually recommends even deciding your character's zodiac sign is, as even little things like that will help you get a bead on your character's personality,

Eleyne Presley said...

Great idea, Ellis. I 'get' the idea of hurting my characters, but I tend to poke gently. No serious hurts.

I'm in the plotting/early writing stage of a new novel, and I'll keep this idea in the front of my mind as I layer in more conflict.

Traci Kenworth said...

Great article!!

Ellis Carrington said...

Poke gently - I love that! It's definitely harder than I think it's going to be sometimes. Whether it's because I am too attached to the character or *I* don't want to have to wade through the emotions to write them. But it's all worthwhile when someone reads what I've written and they tell me it made them cry. Then I know I've done it right. ;)

Ellis Carrington said...

Traci, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)