Classic: Breathing Life Into a Character

>> Monday, May 31, 2010

More classic writing stuff as I kickstart my brain from it's brush with my son's near death experience.

I am not a morning person. I, in fact, eat morning people for breakfast, at least the really perky ones who say, at the crack of dawn, “Isn’t it a lovely morning?” If you hear me crunching at 7 am, somebody was a little too peppy for my tastes and had to die. OK, not really (and, sis, you’re safe since you don’t overwhelm me with peppiness).

What’s this got to do with rocket science? Nothing, but I could feel eyes rolling back into heads all over the place and decided to take a side trip into something else I love: writing characters.

I talk and will talk much more about science and fantasy, but I’m really all about characters. Science fiction and fantasy are just my favorite settings (which is another topic I’ll probably write about), but the key element is characters.

This may not make much sense, since many of my characters seem larger than life (as is often the case with fantasy and science fiction). What would I have in common with a muscular short woman who can shoot errors with Olympian precision and swim under water for 100 m? Well, she’s still human. And, when making characters there are three things I try always to remember: (a) they’re human and therefore have flaws and shortcomings, (b) they have to grow or the story stagnates and (c) nothing makes a character as approachable as humor.

Admittedly, that last is mostly for my own entertainment, but if I don’t like what I write, no one else will either. I think that’s the mistake with much of today’s literature. Everyone’s too good at everything. Let’s face it, no one can do it all. If you’re good at twenty different things, let’s face it, you’re unlikely to be the foremost expert in any of them. And if you are the foremost expert in something, you probably suck at any number of other things. So, give your person some flaws. Perhaps they’re physical - a limp, a “handicap”, bad skin. Perhaps they’re mental: absentmindedness, dyslexia, retardation. Perhaps they’re psychological: depression, phobias, extreme jerk syndrome. Not only do they give characters dimension, they enable the reader to identify with the character, whether they’re a bad guy or a good one.

Growth is another things too often overlooked. Sometimes, the growth is implied, but not clear. I can’t speak for the world at large, but a good book changes me. I like to see the events I’ve enjoyed change the character, too (preferably for the better). Not only does it make for a better story, but it makes the reader and characters companions, working their way through the adventure together. And it ties back to the flawed characters. When you’re perfect, it’s hard to grow.

For me, though, humor is my favorite method for seeing people quickly. A very short excerpt that’s funny can make a character come alive in ways that seven paragraphs describing the exact shade of hair or details on her life can’t. It’s one reason I depend so much on dialog, but it can be done without.

Here’s an example of a character I wrote, and, as you can see, Lofar shares my feelings on getting up early:

Lofar stopped suddenly, for no apparent reason. “Well,” he said to himself, evidently as confounded as any passerby would be that he was there, “I’m here. Now what?”

As usual, the mysterious voice that brought him here was silent. Lofar sighed. He should be used to that by now. He took a moment to turn on his heel and survey his surroundings from every side. Aye, just as he thought. He was in the middle of the forest, in the dark hour before dawn with only a ghost of the moon glowing behind the thin clouds, and he was cold, covered with dew and shrouded in pre-morning mist.

Lofar shivered in his worn linen cloak, which wasn’t much protection against the early morning chill. Why did he leave his uncomfortable, but warm, cot at that ridiculous hour? The voice, content to have gotten him there, didn’t appear to feel the need to explain itself, for there was no reply. “You know I’m going to get a beating for leaving without permission again. I don’t mind—much—but I would like to know why. I know it is of no concern to you, but he’ll surely ask me and, even if I don’t feel inclined to tell him, I would like to know: why?”

Like a breath of wind, he heard only in his mind, ‘You will.’ Whoever his impetus that called him, she surely had a sexy voice. That, of course, explained how she could rouse him from a deep slumber, since nothing else had ever worked.

Lofar, who has almost nothing in common with today’s modern man, has something we can identify with: sometimes, he wakes up and/or does something without knowing why. I’d like to think I’m not the only one this happens to and I’m betting at least some of my readers will know the feeling. And,by knowing the feeling, they start to know Lofar.


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