07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Real People Make the Best Characters

 I recently finished teaching a "Man Talk" class where I helped students find ways to make their male characters more realistic.  Plot and setting are important, but characters make a story. If I care about the people I'll forgive a few lapses in their surroundings. If I don't care, not even the most fast-paced plot stifles my yawns or stops me from tossing a book aside. Many readers are just as rude as I am; they have too many things pulling at their valuable time to waste it reading about people that aren't realistic.
A few of those pesky YA readers
Especially young adult readers. If I bore them with noble stereotypes I'll be dropped in a hot minute. I have to hook readers fast and keep re-hooking them as the story progresses. If not they're off to the next movie or video game or sporting event…they may even chose to do homework. 

But when they find a character that really pulls them into a book, someone they can love, or love to hate, they may never let you, or the book, go.

Reality should bite

I'm not talking about werewolves, dragons or vampires.  My tag line -- Real Boys Growing Into Real Men--should really mention Real People.  My job as a writer is to dig deep and sculpt characters with real hopes and aspirations, fears and flaws. Then I arm them with real goals before sending them out to meet the challenges of their plot.

David Albacore, the protagonist of PULL, is a natural rescuer - a Warrior archetype. But he also has a temper. He loves his sisters, but darn they make him angry sometimes. That makes him human.

My characters are their own unique selves

David is not me. I went the other way around and worked to become him. I joked in another post that I take my characters shopping with me to get to know them better. The truth is I do a lot more.  I believe in the adage, Write What You Know. Since I knew nothing about seventeen-year-old boys, I became an anthropologist so I could learn.  Writing PULL meant waking up every day for months and reminding myself "You're a boy, think and act like one." I trained myself to look at the world through his eyes. Once that happened, the writing flowed.

I trained myself to think and feel like a teenaged prostitute to write my 2010 Golden Heart manuscript, DAMAGED GOODS, where my heroine's past catches up to her.  Right now I'm struggling to become a teenaged alcoholic for PULL's sequel.  Once I know him well enough I'll put him on a path of discovery that will lead him to the brink of despair--and let him be remade.  

Now you tell me

Please take a minute to share about your favorite characters. They may be ones you've written, or ones you've read.  Hit the comment button and let me know how you feel.

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PJ Sharon said...

One of my favorite characters of all time is Jamie Frasier from Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER series. He's a 6'4" red headed highlander with a temper, a huge heart, a killer sense of humor, and a child-like innocence and purity that make me fall in love with him all over again in every book. Gabaldon puts him through some horrible experiences, which makes me keep turning the page to make sure he comes through it all okay. My goal as a writer is to make readers care that much for my hero.

B. A. Binns said...

I think I may have to grab that series, PJ. Jamie sounds like a most interesting man.

Sarah Raplee said...

I enjoyed reading about how you go about'channeling' your characters, Barbara.

I'm particularly fond of the hero and heroine in my current WIP (Hmmm; maybe because I'm in their heads right now?)

Hector is a burned-out undercover agent who can't bring himself to leave behind the blind woman who blows his cover at a drug lord's wedding. She might work for the villain, and she'll be a huge liability on his escape through the wilderness, but when she tries to help him get away, his moral code won't let him abandon her.

Gotta love a man with principles!

Meli is a lonely, independent wedding singer who has a secret that keeps her from connecting with people. She, too, has integrity and an inner strength that surprises Hector. I've done a lot of research in order to break sterotypes and make this character a realistic woman who's blindness is not her weakness. I based her on a real blind woman I knew years ago.

Character makes or breaks most stories - I agree completely!

Judith Ashley said...

I am amazed that you became an anthropologist to better understand your characters.

Mine, especially the heroines, possess me. I become them or they become me, not sure which. I can write when it isn't so intense but I believe my best writing occurs when I turn myself over to and 'become' the characters in my story.

I also agree that the plot can have a flaw, the setting be weakly portrayed but if the character isn't realistic, if I can't relate to him/her the book certainly isn't a 'keeper' although I may continue reading to pinpoint what it is that is missing in order to improve my own writing. However, there have been a few when even that wasn't enough motivation to finish reading the book.

I really love this blog as all of the Genre-istas are posting things that really have me thinking - a very good thing!

Anonymous said...

I love Anita Shreve's characters. They are real, flawed and always evoke strong emotions!

Calisa Rhose said...

Jon is an angry shifter wolf. He hates the curse that is his life. But he has learned to accept and even embrace it because his inner demon is who he is, a large part of the heritage he's so proud of (Cherokee Indian). When I write him I have to put on my grumpy hat because he's not a happy man. But he is protective and caring in his own skewed way. He craves to be loved, but fears what will happen if he allows that rare jewel to enter his damaged heart. Shyen, his chosen, has to work to get through to his softer side. I mean really work. He's a tough alpha male and she's a soft feminine woman- aka. the enemy. He's fun but not always easy to give voice to. I have to feel him as I write.

Great post. One of my fave topics. Thanks!

B. A. Binns said...

Calisa, sometimes I think the best characters are the hardest ones to get a handle on for a writer. The more complex they are, the more we have to shift to deal with them.

And the more fun they are for the reader.

s.r. remmek said...

I agree 100%. Having characters that are real with real challenges. Not just vampire of the week or who do I love but how am I going to get the money for groceries or who am I and where do I belong? This is especially true, I think, for younger characters but it applies to everyone.

My favorite characters are my own and I've worked to embody this sentiment. Jun Un is loving and loyal but he also has a temper and fights to control himself. Aiden barely knows how to be normal due to being in foster care since birth and suffering through abuse but he doesn't stop trying. Both of them are trying to find out who they are and what they believe and how to live within the foster system and really have no one else to cling to.

It's really hard writing, sometimes. But it's really real writing because they have to make hard decisions and discover hard truths and that is what all our characters should do.

Tam Linsey said...

Great post! You have two very important concepts that hit home for me. First, "...hook readers fast and keep re-hooking them as the story progresses." I think connection is number one for readers.
Second, "I went the other way around and worked to become him." Too many writers write the same characters over and over because they are writing themselves. I love it when a writer truly CREATES a character. Thanks for posting this!

Joan Leacott said...

Good post, Barbara. I'm with you on the writer's job description of sculpting three-dimensional characters. I get real annoyed with convenient conflicts and easy resolutions. I love Robyn Carr's characters who always have to work for their happy endings.