On Characters

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there are giveaways, fun, and other writing advice. It’s a party over there!

“I don’t know where Danny Valentine came from,” I told my writing partner morosely, staring at my water. “She’s just so…damaged.”

The Selkie raised one eyebrow. “You don’t? A person that driven, locked in that tiny little box and going nuts? You’ve got no idea? Really?”

Well, when she put it like that, I had to concede she had a point. But still. I am not my characters.

I realize protestations of sanity coming from someone who spins lies for a living and talks to imaginary people while crouching over a computer keyboard may be a tad unbelievable. Nonetheless, I insist. I’m wound a little tight and I’m weird, but I don’t confuse myself with my characters.

I don’t know where characters come from, really. Sometimes they just start talking and I shrug and take dictation. Sometimes I see them on the movie screen in my head, and the fun of the game is figuring out who they are, what they want, and what happens to them. Sometimes I get an idea–wouldn’t it be really cool IF… Basically I take character much the way I take the stories they’re a part of–as a gift, spun into whole cloth by the Fates in my subconscious and handed up through a chute that only opens when I’m sitting down and ready to receive.

I had lunch with a young writer today, K.B. She’s one of the bravest young women I know, and is practicing her writing. We got to talking about characters, so I’m going to tell you what I told her, with (possibly) a few additions.

* Don’t confuse yourself with your characters. Sometimes, if you’re a genius, you can pull off an authorial insertion and make it work. You can even make it a classic. But don’t bet on being a genius and producing a classic. You have more chance of winning the lottery or having an airplane part fall out of the sky and onto your head.

Treat characters like you would an extreme sport–with appropriate caution and care for your own safety. Don’t get roped into believing they’re you. This is a tough one, because so much of good writing (at least, the way I practice, whether it turns out good or not is another question) is kind of like method acting. It requires getting inside your character’s skin. This is part of the Mystery of the Mask, but try very hard to remember that the mask is not YOU.

* You’re in charge. Ilona Andrews mentioned this at the Night of Pwnage At Powell’s, and it’s a good point. You’re writing the story, you’re in charge. Moaning that a character isn’t obeying, or is being recalcitrant, is often a way of Avoiding The Damn Work. Or it’s a sign that one isn’t heading in the right direction and needs to let go of some cherished notions about the work. If a character isn’t cooperating, see if you’re resisting the way the story wants to go.

* Hurt them. A lot. A lot of writers are downright afraid to hurt their characters. This is, I think, partly a function of identifying with them and partly a function of just being a Reasonably Well-Adjusted Person, or at least one with protective social coloration. Try to overcome this fear, because:

* No risk, no reward. Without the heart-in-mouth risk, there is no reward when a character surmounts an obstacle. If it comes too easily, a reader could care less. The characters we cheer for are the ones who run the most risk. Conversely, the villains who risk everything get our grudging admiration. Stack the deck. Throw a curveball. Make it an uncertain thing.

One of the nicest compliments my friend Monk ever paid me about my writing was that he didn’t know who was going to survive. “Like the end of the Valentine series,” he said. “Here’s this character who’s now half-demon, she’s now got the power and the Big Powerful Weapon, and if this was a regular fantasy she’d vanquish the evil. But with you writing it, there’s this sense that it might not be enough.” (Here he paused, the spoke wryly and with great affection.) “I hate you for that. I didn’t know if she’d pull through.” Which leads me to the next point.

* There’s always a cost. If your character has a magical power, a magical weapon, or even just an ordinary human talent, there MUST be a cost involved in its use. A magical system is more easily believable if the energy comes from somewhere. If it’s going to save the hero’s ass, there needs to be a cost paid for that saving. Otherwise it’s just a useless gimmick, and one that will weigh down your writing besides. Always, always consider what the cost of every character’s ability/gift is.

* Make the bruises count. If your character gets into a fight and the next morning they don’t feel like groaning when they haul themselves out of bed, I’m not going to believe you. Part of hurting your characters is taking into account the lingering of pain while things heal. If your character has superhuman healing, that’s a gift and (say it with me) there must be a cost. Make me believe it, or I’m not going to care. Bruises, pulled muscles, emotional and mental trauma, take time to heal. This will add a layer of risk and complexity to your story. Cheap? Sure. Effective? Of course, or I wouldn’t advocate it.

* Think about your villains. Don’t make them cardboard. A good hero deserves a good villain–and a good villain needs to have depth, motivation, and reasons for why s/he does what s/he does. The best villains are the ones we can understand and live vicariously a little bit through, the ones who have reasons we can understand. Ask yourself what every character’s cup of water is. Then use that information to make things difficult for them.

* Last but not least, feel compassion for these people. Yes, I know I told you to hurt them. That still applies. But if you don’t suffer for your heroes and your villains, you have no chance to make me believe I should. It’s a fine line to walk, between the need to make it risky and the need to have empathy so you can make a reader care about these people enough to keep reading.

You do not have to like your characters. I think I can count the characters I’ve created that I actually like on one hand and have fingers left over. But I definitely empathize with them. I aim to understand why they do the things they do, and my job–the hat trick, so to speak–is to clearly convey that understanding to the reader. (This is, incidentally, where an editor is sometimes most helpful. That’s another blog post.) The understanding does not have to call forth a specific emotional reaction, like love or hate. It just has to call forth any emotional reaction. If you get any emotion at all from a reader, you can consider your job at least decently done.

For example, I still get hate mail from people who get to the ending of Working For The Devil and feel a shock of loss and grief. “How could you?” one woman wrote me. “How could you do that to Dante?” Which meant I’d done my job. Incidentally, if I hadn’t ended WFTD that way, it would have been only a one-book deal. The rest of the series was predicated on what happened at the end of that book, something I was very clear about all the way through.

* Oh, wait. One more thing. Have fun. I rather like Stephen Brust’s famous line, the one he recommends tacking up over your computer, or wherever you can see it while you work:

And now, I’m going to tell you something REALLY cool.

Enjoy this. If you’re having a ball, the rest of it will be easier, and chances are good the Reader will have a ball too. Not only that, but when you’re snickering with evil glee, it’s a lot easier to hurt your characters in interesting, diabolical, and downright nasty ways.

In fact, you could say that’s the most fun of all. Which, I suppose, makes me a not very nice person, even if I can protest at being sane and reasonably well-adjusted.

Oh well. Nobody’s perfect.

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