Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Writing craft

A couple of different thoughts about characterization dropped into my head this week. The result made me think that I might be too busy admiring the bark and ignoring the essence of the forest.

On Monday's blog I mused about my tendency to admire the talents I don't possess. My friend Lori Borrill, who writes wonderfully sexy, witty romance for those of you who haven't read her, shared her thoughts.

No, Evanne, I'm exactly the same way. I love a good horror story, and I can't write horror for beans. I also love good thrillers and suspense plots, mysteries, all those things that feel too complicated for me.

I answered.
Earlier today I had kind of a epiphany -- that what is even more important than memorable characters is a making a connection between the story world and the reader. Character is simply the most popular road.

Then Lori said:
I wouldn't disagree with that. But how exactly do you connect with readers? (And that's not a hypothetical question. I'm seriously interested in how to do that).

In romance usually it is through the characters. But as I perused the NY Times best seller list is occurs to me there are other routes. One is situational the hero is an average Joe caught up in something bigger than he is and has to rise to the occasion. David battling Goliath -- that the situation itself makes us root for the underdog. Injustice, overwhelming odds, suffering, peril are all situational hooks. This isn't new thinking - just me getting a better understanding of why the 2-D characters succeed in some plots. IMHO the reader is filling in the missing pieces and projecting their idea of who that protagonist is onto the deliberately rather skimpy characterization. When it works -- it works better than brilliantly written protagonists.
Was my response.

The trick of course is getting the reader to identify with the protagonist. All of the examples I can think of that work effectively involve trouble (with a capital T) for the star of the story. The beleaguered protagonist suffers. Their unhappy situation is essential to the bonding process.

They are unjustly accused, innocently attacked, or unfairly accused in whatever calamity has befallen them. Rather than bemoan their fate or become bitter they battle back determined to overcome this obstacle. They are not super people, they have flaws, but at their core they are good and noble and honorable. The bad thing that happens to this character actually brings out their best qualities. The trouble forges their character, burning away all the petty parts and revealing the best part of them.

The connection with the reader is forged based upon the universal truth that each of us is the star of our own story. No matter how modest or unlikely a protagonist we appear to the rest of the world we battle overwhelming odds each day and survive. When tragedy strikes and danger looms don't ordinary people perform amazing feats all the time? The essence of popular fiction is a world that makes sense. A universe where good triumphs over the forces of evil.

None of this is new thinking. But what did strike me was the fact that too much lovingly crafted character detail is actually detrimental to this process. The situation, the protagonists actions and emotional response to the story events are critical. What color their eyes are isn't all that essential to the reader connection.

One of the advantages of the printed story over a movie version is the reader's imagination fills in gaps with a richness no author could equal. In movies the only fill in are the audience's projection of the character's thoughts. In a book the character's thoughts are easily shared and that's the shortest road to making the magic emotional bond with the reader.

Now for the tricky part -- putting this insight to work in a story.


Blogger Lori Borrill said...

Evanne, I think you've shared some very good insights. I've read some books where the writing was wonderful, the plot intriguing, but I just didn't care if the couple got together. For some reason, I wasn't rooting for them and was completely indifferent as to whether or not they found HEA in the end.

But the real problem with that is, I couldn't put a solitary finger on what the problem was. Some books I'll even overlook wincing dialogue or lousy prose because the writer has seriously hooked me into wanting to know how things turn out.

I'm feeling like this is really key, but putting my finger on what exactly creates a sympathetic character feels elusive.

Maybe it's because as individuals, we each sympathise with different things. Yes, there are universal themes like wounded puppies, but it could be that whatever it was the writer used as their sympathy card in that particular story didn't fit with me personally. Therefore, they've created characters I'm indifferent to, which I think is almost worse than characters I hate.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Evanne said...

Lori, IMHO sympathetic isn't even the issue, you can be simply fascinated or even repelled, yet riveted. It's about a connection, usually sympathetic (I think saying always might be safe in if we stick to romance LOL).

The sympathy factors are universal everyone knows what it feels like to be embarrassed, left out,to be loney, to be treated unfairly, et cetera. If the author gave the protagonist a touching conflict that didn't engage you it was their bad. Truly.

Not everyone loves every story, we all have likes and dislikes. Some authors have an entirely different approach enticing you into the story world with a beautiful setting, a mystery to be solved, or a dream to be pursued.

I'm just now figuring out why the poor heroine is so often struggling with a problem as the story opens.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Evanne said...

Lori, It just occurred to me that perhaps the reason you didn't care if a particular couple got together or not may have had other root causes. Like there was no believable inner conflict to their romance.

A common enough situation when the happy ending is a given.

Or while sympathetic neither of the characters were engaging. They need conflict, flaws, honor -- sheesh! I hate that you have to do so many things right to make a story work.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Lori Borrill said...

It really is hard keeping it all together. I hear from so many authors that writing gets harder the more books they write. Universally, we start out fairly ignorant, whipping along having fun with our stories. But the more we know, the more we realize what we have to put in. The end result is a better product, but it sure isn't the picnic it was in those early days!

I think you've got great insights when it comes to this stuff. Now to put those insights on the page!

11:28 AM  
Blogger Evanne said...

Lori, You are so right I started out blissfully ignorant. . . still miss that excited happy feeling that I was telling a great story . . . This may illustrate my current lack of education but I figure if I work real hard maybe I'll get it back - not that I'll know everything that there is to know about craft but that I'll have learned enough and internalized enough that I can go back to simply telling the story.

6:41 PM  

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