Friday, May 25, 2007

"What's My Motivation?" Creating Believable Characters

Another re-un from Tate...

Creating believable characters is the essence of fiction writing. But how is it actually done?

First of all, I don't think anyone really knows. So much of writing is magic, after all. (I mean that quite seriously, but maybe that's a post for another day.) Even so, it is also a craft. There are tricks of the trade that help flat words on the page blossom into vivid, living imaginary creatures.

One such trick is what is called narrative voice.

I searched desperately for a good definition of what is meant by narrative voice and I didn't come up with much of any use. So, I’ll have to stumble through an explanation of my own. The narrative is comprised of the parts of the story that is not dialogue. That would include all of the description, the internal dialogue (if there is any), the action, and everything (except the bits in quotations). The narrative voice, therefore, is the way – the tone, if you will – in which those parts are written.

Your narrative will be in a
point of view (the usual suspects: first or third). It will be in a verb tense of some sort (past or present).

The voice, on the other hand, will convey a certain kind of personality, such as chatty, sarcastic, militaristic, hesitant, or angry. Since your story is being told, in essence, by the main character, the narrative voice (remember: the bits in between) should reflect their personality as much as the character's dialogue and actions. It will be consistent throughout the text, ie. your chick-lit heroine will still be chatty even during the scary scenes or the sad scenes. She'll just be chatty in a scared way or a sad way. Though not necessarily when she's talking (dialogue), but when she's explaining things to us, the readers.

One of the big mistakes beginning writers often make is to underutilize the narrative voice. I don't know why, but a lot of people seem to approach those parts of the story as if they're the boring bits. He walked into the room, yada, yada.

No, no, no. The narrative is where your character LIVES. If your critique group is telling you that your characters feel flat, this may be part of your problem.

The narrative voice is the reader's main window into the mind, the emotional state, and the... well, character of your main character. So he walked into a room. Is it a room he's been in before? Does the room make him feel instantly at ease? Why? What about it? Is it the dried flower arrangement collecting dust in the sunlight that reminds him of his mother's house? Is the room warm? And, how does this reflect the plot (or the theme)? Is this room a place in which he's going to take shelter after having his world-view shaken after discovering his lover is a werewolf? If so, what about this familiar place suddenly feels wrong?

Plus, as I've said many times before I think one of the reasons readers read is to get a sense of what it’s like to be someone else. We want someone else's take on the familiar. So he walked into a room, is there something there I might understand, relate to? Okay, so I've never discovered my lover is a werewolf, but what is it about walking into a room you've been in a million times before after hearing some world-altering news that is universal to the human experience? Or maybe it's not even that close. Maybe it's like the feeling of wrong familiarness that you get once you’ve been overseas and come home, and you look at all the houses in the Midwest with their expansive lawns that you've grown up with all your life, and suddenly they seem far too far apart.

That's part of using narrative voice to its full potential.

The other part is word choice. Part of keeping your narrative voice consistent is remembering to always use the kinds of words your main character would know when describing people, places, and things. For example, a nuclear physicist would describe a garden in a different way than a ten-year old girl.

One of the more difficult parts of writing is remembering to always stay in your main character’s head – to think like they do. One of the reasons I don't like to read much horror, particularly the kinds of horror novels where there’s a serial killer who has p.o.v. chapters, is that I hate getting into the mindset of someone so damaged. And, when a writer does it well, that's exactly what happens. It can be kind freaky, actually. See my nephew's blog
(Sunday, January 29) where he talks about reading American Psycho.


MariAdkins said...

Thank you for this. I needed this today!

Anonymous said...

What's scary about identifying with Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is that the novel is satire, using the mindset of a serial killer to illuminate the mindset of the nouveau riche white guys who supposedly 'had it all' in the 80's. Is the horror in identifying with the serial killing, or 80's Wall Street yuppies?

Either way, on both layers McInerney got it right - he nailed the motivations of the character seen both ways, and their direct relation/similarity, which creates an even deeper layer.

I reread this book recently just to observe the skillful writing that I missed the first time around - back when everyone was so horrified at the novel's excesses. The DVD commentary for the movie - written and directed by women with a distinctly feminist outlook (Mary Harron and Guin Turner)- made me take a second look.