Friday, February 20, 2015

Writing Study: Difficult Characters

Silhouette by mzacha.
"Michal Zacharzewski, SXC"
I had a great writing day yesterday: 3600 words. Even better than that, I uncovered the personal history of an important character I've been struggling with. Exciting stuff!

Up until now, I just couldn't nail this guy down. He was basically a roughly sketched stage player, although absolutely necessary to the story. I have written a lot of material about him, but I have always ended up scrapping it. Without "knowing him", I couldn't seem to get the story to come together.

I kept trying to foist a persona on him, but it never worked. Nothing fit right. Each time I'd try a new history on him, it was like trying to pose and repose a statue - impossible. So I just wrote along, letting him be a stick figure if that's all he wanted to be...then suddenly, yesterday, some of his inner demons slipped out. Uh-oh. Too bad for him. You can't stuff the inner demons back in once they escape. No hoping I won't see 'em either, tough guy. They're like glitter, or confetti - once it pops, it goes everywhere. There's no hiding it. Everyone can see it. It gets on everything, and you can't shake it off. Just when people think they've got rid of all of it, two weeks later, they're still finding glitter in their hair.

When I'm reading, I'm always most interested in the characters who are a little closed off, but who reveal more and more personality and history details as the story develops.You pick up on all of these little detail until suddenly in a later chapter....boom! Something triggers the character, usually something to do with a sensitive area of his personal history, and all his skeletons fall out of the closet. As a reader, you see this and shout "ah-ha!" because now the reason he was acting like this or that in chapter four makes perfect sense.

For example, there's a nice guy, Bert, at the local pub. He's good looking, does standard nice guy stuff - opens doors for folks, buys a round once a week, drives the local drunks home when they get too toasted to walk it off. Then one night, he has one too many, and under the influence, he talks about how he'd like to take everyone of those little teenage shits that hang out on the corner of Colorado Street and gut them - going into graphic detail of how he'd do it. Then he says he'd take what's left of them and hang them from the massive oak tree in Midtown Park. The bartender looks at Bert, "Why would you say something like that?" Bert shrugs, looks into his glass before drinking the last swallow of scotch. "For all those years of hassling me." Hassling him? How?

Imagine yourself at the end of the bar and you hear this exchange. It doesn't matter if Burt means it or not, or if it's just the alcohol talking. The probable reaction would be, 'Whoa! I didn't know that about Bert. He seemed like such a normal, average guy. A real nice fellow, but I didn't know he had such a violent streak." It totally changes your perception of Bert. Doesn't it? You begin to wonder if he has a criminal history. Is his nice guy routine just that - an act?

Once a character spills details like that, once they show you (inadvertently or otherwise) what's going on in their minds and how they think, you can't put that rabbit back in the hat. There's something going on with that character. You know it, even if you don't know what it is or where it comes from. His personal truth is out there, so as a writer you might as well grasp onto it and run with it. Later on, months down the road, when you run into a character who actually knows Bert, and knows him well, you recount what happened that night he went on a bender. The listening character responds rather sympathetically, "Oh, well, you know some teenagers attacked his wife, Harriet, sixteen years ago. She died from her injuries. Bert never really got over it."

Suddenly you get it. It makes sense now. You understand who Bert is, and why he said what he did that night. It also becomes so much easier to imagine a whole line of backstory about him, just from uncovering that one small piece of his personal history.

So yeah, that character I've been working on...he had a tough shell. Probably the toughest I have ever worked with. But I finally cracked it. The confetti is officially everywhere. Once I discovered his personal history, the story took off at a gallop. It also made my character richer, adding more facets to who he is. Also, in the last chapter I wrote, by knowing where the character was coming from, I was able to add all these little mysterious nuances on his behalf. I can also better predict how he's going to act in the next scene when the crap hits the fan.

Sometimes the character's history comes easily; sometimes characters don't seem to want to reveal a single detail about themselves. The importance of personal history is that it takes characters beyond flat descriptions of hair and eye color, and gives writers a character "context" to work from. Who is this person?  Why do they do what they do? Without that context, we simply pose and repose a figure, a statue on the stage of our story, instead of letting the character act according to who he or she is as a person.

Anyway, I'm really glad I didn't give up on this guy. There were many, many times I wanted to. When a character isn't revealing anything, if they have nothing to share or contribute to the story other than walking around pretending to be breathing, I know it's best to let them go. But this time I just couldn't. I felt like this guy had something. That spark. I just couldn't see it. I had to keep searching. I'm glad I stuck with him, because I'm very happy with the payoff. What a fascinating person he is under that cool, unshakable surface. I can hardly wait to dig deeper. ◙


Hi, hi! Comments are appreciated, and I will reciprocate as soon as I can. Friendly conversation is always welcome. Trolls will be set on fire and tossed into the bog of eternal stench. Have a happy day! ~.^

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