Friday, May 12, 2006

What a Character!

Lest I spend too much time focusing on the minutiae of writing, I thought I would take a minute to talk about characters, as some comments on older works of mine mentioned that they thought the characters were a strong point.

I am a very character-focused writer and reader. I liked Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, but I never really wanted to read them again, and I think that's because there were no characters that really grabbed me. The appeal of Foundation is the universe Asimov built and the ideas he was expanding on, and while I admired and enjoyed those, they didn't engage me. By contrast, Tim Powers, whose work I recently wrote about, also creates a fascinating universe with interesting ideas, but he populates his universe with much more memorable characters.

In my own work, I find that my main characters tend to be less memorable, but I (apparently) create enjoyable secondary characters. Which is an interesting distinction. The main characters don't have much personality, but they seem real. We see them through the focus of the events of the story and we judge them by their reaction to what happens. Okay, I misspoke a little. They do have personality, but it's not a quirky memorable kind of personality. It's the kind of personality that lets the reader identify with them. Whereas the secondary characters can be drawn in broader strokes. We view them through the perception of the main character, as they're elements of his or her world. I think I wouldn't want a main character that was TOO quirky, as that distracts from the experiences of the book, but maybe, as I think of it, that's an artifact of the type of writing I gravitate to: single character focused. If I had a broader narrative that jumped between multiple characters, maybe they could all be more colorful without harming the story.


Colorful or not, it's important to me that they seem real, and I'm always happy when I get feedback to that effect, as I did recently for one of my stories. And I can always tell when I haven't spent enough time trying to get into a character's head, because they come out flat on the page. For me, that's the beginning and end of any story I write: start with a character going on a journey, and end with the knowledge that the character became real enough to me that the journey made sense and accomplished its goal.

2 comments:

Rikoshi said...

In my own work, I find that my main characters tend to be less memorable, but I (apparently) create enjoyable secondary characters.

In modern Japanese storytelling (at least, as far as entertainment media goes), the main character is often given as bland a personality as possible, so that the viewer can just project themselves onto that character more easily--on a level moreso than just 'identifying with' them, which is almost kind of ridiculous. I certainly wouldn't say than any of your main characters are anywhere near that flat, if that helps at all.

I think I wouldn't want a main character that was TOO quirky, as that distracts from the experiences of the book, but maybe, as I think of it, that's an artifact of the type of writing I gravitate to: single character focused. If I had a broader narrative that jumped between multiple characters, maybe they could all be more colorful without harming the story.

I tend to gravitate towards such multiple-character writing, and one of my biggest fears is having my characters lack distinction. I try not to overexaggerate their personality traits, certainly, because I want them to seem real, as well, but it's sometimes tough when I think, "Okay, these characters are both the same age, come from the same walk of life, and have similar goals," and then I wonder if the reader would notice the difference between the two if I didn't stress it.

Tim said...

Oddly enough, one thing I have run into that really helps is thinking about naming. Two characters can be very different, but if they have similar names, people will get them confused. So instead of "Jack" and "Jeff," try "Steve" and "Mingdingxiong," or something.

There is always a tricky line to walk in making a character distinctive vs. unnaturally quirky. I tend to err on the side of making them more real and less quirky, perhaps to the detriment of their memorability. Yours seem very well realized, though, from what I've read of your work!