Friday, February 5, 2016

How to Meet a Character: Part I, Less Telling is More Better

Writing is hopeless.

This statement would probably surprise anyone, and if you know me, even more so.  Since I was ten years old, I've known I wanted a career as a writer, and that hasn't changed.  So why would I write that sentence?

Well, in a way it's false.  Not all writing is hopeless, and none of it completely so.  So let me rephrase it.

It is hopeless when writing fiction to try to explain/reveal/exhibit human nature.

I've always thought fiction was about humans.  I've always thought the point was to explore our nature, to lay it open.  Think about it--we read a book; we enter someone's head.  We think what they think, we feel what they feel, we see what they see.  We become two people at once.  And yet, we think of the character as a person, someone who isn't us.  We know them, but we are not them.

As a writer, I've always struggled with making a character real.  The human I know best is...myself, but I can't make every character like myself.  But I can take little snippets from people I know, put them together, substitute and combine, and I end up with a Patchwork Personality, someone who isn't anyone, but is everyone.

But there are always more problems.  How do you put an entire person on paper?  How can you represent all the individual facets, the quirks, the different angles, the joy, pain, confusion, and a hundred different emotions we all experience at the same time?  The answer is fairly simple: you can't.

I'll just lay it out for you--you'll never, ever, ever know a character as well as you know yourself, unless they're one-dimensional and badly written.  Your only hope would be to know them as well as you know a close friend or family member, if that well.  Honestly, human nature doesn't really follow hard-and-fast rules.  We change, we develop, we go through seasons, and it's not predictable.  The best rule I can find for writing my characters is this one:

More is less.

The more a character is described, the less believable they are.  If you know every single thing about a person, if you can always predict what he's going to do, chances are he's a pretty boring person.  If someone doesn't have any mysteries, just how interesting is he?

With this past November's NaNo novel, I was in large part experimenting.  The main character, Theodore, has two chapters in Rivenbark that show his point of view.  The entire rest of the book is told in third person objective to dozens of other people, some who we know better than others.  And yet, there's never any doubt that Theodore is the main character.  What I tried to do, and what I hope I accomplished, is to make readers so eager to find out about Theodore and his personality that they'll keep reading, searching deep for any snippet that explains his personality.  He is mostly a mystery, and yet we care about him, we sympathize with him.

Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of Rivenbark.  It's unedited, so don't judge.  But it shows some of Theodore's personality.  As the book goes on, we see different sides of him, and he gets more complex.

“It’s inexcusable,” Theodore announced.  “Absolutely inexcusable, Sebastian.  I find myself bored.”
Sebastian looked over at his friend, noticing the way Theodore’s eyes were narrowed in frustration, his lips pressed in a straight, firm line.  Every feature of him spoke rigidity.  Though only sixteen years old, Theodore Richard Norwood IV was more imposing a picture than most adults.
“How about a trip to Arrowood?” he suggested.  
“I have been to Arrowood,” the boy said, his voice dripping with disapproval.  “I like it.  It belongs to me.  But I have been there, and there is a whole world outside of mine that I have not explored.”
“I want to explore it.  I’ve come to realize that there is something that appeals to me about always taking the hardest way.”  Theodore’s gaze was unreadable, his face bathed in evening light as he stared out across the river.  A face like stone, Sebastian thought.  A wall more impenetrable than any ancient civilization had ever built.  “If you’re trying to make things as difficult as possible, you’ll never be disappointed.  Life will be regretless.”  A hint of a smile cracked the stone wall.  “Of course, it’s hope that gets in the way.  It’s hard to prepare for despair when there’s a nagging expectation that something good will happen.”
    Sebastian didn’t say a word.  He knew that whatever Theodore said next, it would be important.  Really, things that his best friend said were almost always important.  But Theodore was evidently restless, and that meant anything could happen.
A bird called out as it dipped low over the water, and Theodore’s eyes followed it, he evidently lost in thought.  Sebastian tore a piece of grass apart, waiting for his companion to speak.
“Pack your bags,” Theodore said suddenly.  “We leave tomorrow.”
Sebastian was used to surprises, so he merely nodded.  “Where to?”
Theodore looked calmly over at him.  “Somewhere far away.  Somewhere very, very different.”

When I think of books with good character development, my mind immediately goes to the book Holes by Louis Sachar.  We start out not knowing much about Stanley, and the only way we progress from there is by being given the facts, like what he says, how he reacts to things, the way things are described and you can tell it's how he thinks of them.

And then there's his friend Zero, who we know even less about, and care about just as much.

If you're trying to describe a character for your readers by filling in every last detail you can, you're not giving them enough credit.  That's a cool thing about humans--they can think.  They can draw their own conclusions from what you give them, and they can fill things in on their own.  They can adjust their thinking when it needs to be adjusted, and they can follow a story without knowing everything about the main character.

Ready for another surprise?

A book isn't about its main character.

This is a point that most people don't get.  People don't read a book because they just love this character so much.  They read a book because of what that character does.  That's why books have such a thing as a plot.  The story is what matters, and if one person is at the center of this story, then good.  Fine.  He's privileged.

But remember that.  A character isn't important, what a character does is.

Don't be that person.

You know, the one who will tell your whole life story to the first person you meet.  Or rather, don't let your character be that person.  Like any person, your readers will get to know him, and if they know so much about him at the beginning, just the sheer amount of information becomes part of his personality, and it weighs the story down.  And the story is what's important here.

Part II coming soon.

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